When asked to address St George Illawarra’s senior players about leadership, former Australia cricket captain Mark Taylor recalled his first day in the top job.
Having just taken over from Allan Border as skipper in 1994, his first assignment was a Test against Pakistan in Karachi. Seeking to kick off a new era in style, in a country where Australia had not won a Test since 1959, Taylor felt he had covered every contingency.
“On my debut as captain, I spent all of the off-season thinking about all the ways I could make the side better,” Taylor recalls.
“I met with the bowlers, then separately with the batsmen. Then I had a couple of days with Ian Healy, who was vice-captain at the time, and we discussed various things. I thought of just about everything.”
Or so it seemed. It only became evident afterwards that the opener was so preoccupied with everyone else’s performance, that he neglected his own. In the opening innings, he spooned one back to Wasim Akram.
In the second dig, “Tubby” nicked a Waqar Younis delivery he should have left alone.
It marked the first time in Test history that a player had made a pair on his captaincy debut. Pakistan went on to win a thrilling Test by one wicket.
“I ticked every box except just going out there getting some runs myself,” Taylor laments.
“I learnt the hard way, from that point of view. There is a happy medium to be found there.”
This was one of his key messages to the Dragons’ leadership group, which includes captain Ben Hunt. At the behest of new coach Shane Flanagan, Taylor spoke about his experiences as Australian captain, a post considered by some to be the second most important in the land, only behind that of the prime minister.
Taylor recovered from that inauspicious start: he soon found the middle of the bat, earned praise for his captaincy on the field and became a diplomat off it.
Some critics have argued that, during a tough day in the field, the decision to throw the ball to Shane Warne or Glenn McGrath wasn’t a difficult one, but the job was not without its challenges. Taylor’s ability to manage a side full of big personalities was one of his enduring traits.
“It’s about having adult conversations with people; that’s something that leaders need to do all the time,” Taylor says.
“Like everything, it was harder thinking about it than doing it. Once you chat to those people, you find they are thinking very similar things to you. More often than not, they want what’s best for the team. The bottom line is, if the team is playing well and you’re winning, everyone is a winner.
“That’s the mentality I tried to get across as a cricket captain. I found the players I had around at the time I took over the Australian cricket team – we had the Waugh boys [Steve and Mark], Ian Healy, David Boon was still playing, McGrath, Warne – they are leaders, no doubt about it.
“They had characteristics that could have made them an Australian captain – I wasn’t the only person who was a potential leader of the team.
“All I had to tell the lads at the time was that I was the lucky one who got the job. I need your help.
“You have to be honest, but then be prepared to cop a bit of criticism back. If you have that open line of communication, it goes a long way towards forging a very good team.”
That is the lofty ambition of the Dragons. Bookmakers have installed them as wooden spoon favourites after finishing last season above only the Wests Tigers. Having attended a Dragons Way Breakfast late last year, and spoken to the players after witnessing assistant coach Dean Young put them through a defensive session, Taylor believes the club is on the way up.
“I look at a lot of Dragons games last year and I thought they were a long way from being bad,” he says.
“A lot of times they were pretty good, but just didn’t finish off games. There was a five- or six-week span where they won only one game, but lost the other four or five by less than six points.
“That tells me they have enough talent there, it’s just about finding that belief in themselves and in the team to get over the line on three or four of those occasions.
“All of a sudden a not-so-good season turns into a pretty good one. I went down to training to speak to the leadership group about my experiences of captaining Australia, the things you have to do as a captain, playing well individually. And also finding ways to help out your teammates along the way.
“I spent about 45 minutes with the guys and really enjoyed it. I think they did, they threw a number of questions at me, which was really good and suggests to me they were interested.”
The issue of leadership is a delicate one at the Dragons. Hunt is the skipper, but last year he asked for an early release from his contract so he could return to Queensland to live. The Dragons knocked him back.
Is he the right man to lead the Red V?
“I don’t want to go down the path of who the right guy is because I don’t know rugby league well enough,” Taylor says.
“That’s something for Flanno. There’s no doubt I think Ben Hunt can get better as a leader because there’s no doubt he’s a very good player.
“If you look at the Australian cricket side, there was Allan Border, then me, then Steve Waugh, then Ricky Ponting. All four of us are very different people, but we all want the same thing. We all had our own style. You mould your leadership style to the sort of person you are.
“There’s no doubt that Benny Hunt, leading by example like he does week in and week out, has been the Dragons’ best player for the past three or four years.
“He ticks that box straight away. With leadership and someone like Shane Flanagan, who I’ve only got to know over the last couple of months, I think that association will only make him a more rounded person and a better leader going forward.”
STORY – ADRIAN PROSZENKO (SYDNEY MORNING HERALD)