Haven’t seen one of these in years!’
We received this interesting email from Peter Marks regarding predictions for the Rugby World Cup. Any pundits dare to challenge the predictions?
The late great economist J.K. Galbraith wrote that economists don’t make economic predictions because they know, but because they’re asked. Former French international flyhalf Thierry Lacroix’s prediction that Australia should be favourite for this year’s World Cup and that New Zealand has plenty to worry about suggests the need for a similar scepticism when it comes to predicting the winner of rugby tournaments.
Apparently, Lacroix came to his counterintuitive conclusions by crunching the numbers from previous World Cups. On this basis it’s possible to see how Australia, the winner of two World Cups and the runner up in another, might come out on top.
But one obvious flaw in Lacroix’s approach is that it would not have predicted the winner of the last World Cup. Australia had won two of the three previous World Cups, and by that reckoning should have been favoured again. England, by contrast, had been a beaten finalist in 1991 but were spectacular underachievers in 1995 (thrashed by Jonah Lomu and friends) and 1999 (Lomu, Andrew Mehrtens and friends).
In fact, it was this history of failure that prompted Clive Woodward to adopt a grimly pragmatic but ultimately successful plan to structure a team around the kicking skills of Jonny Wilkinson. England had other strengths, of course, most notably the towering figure of Martin Johnson, but it was Wilkinson who could kick a field goal in injury time if the need arose, as it did. Whatever his many qualities, Johnson was no John Eales.
One point to be drawn from this is that England learnt from its mistakes of the 1990s, and corrected them sufficiently to claim the prize in 2003. This capacity to analyse and adapt sets all humans apart from migrating geese, whose annual flights Lacroix’s method would predict correctly.
A second point is that history is a record of what happened, not a determinant of what will happen, especially when the events being used as supporting evidence are separated by gaps of four years. As the Hurricanes defeat last week showed, even the form of seven days ago means little in the cut and thrust of an immensely complex contact game being played in real time, with thirty or more players, a referee, two touch judges and a video ref all able to play a part, all liable to tiny errors of skill and judgment that change the tenor of a game, alter the result. If Sam Norton-Knight, for example, had bluffed the Force on the weekend and scored the winning try he might have been written up as an instinctive genius (remember Matt Giteau against the Welsh last year). He might have been pencilled in for World Cup inclusion. That seems less likely now. But we should not write him or the Wallabies off on the basis or poor or erratic current form. There are too many unknown and complicating factors between now and September, and the season-ending injury to league star Mark Gasnier has shown, an instant of good or bad fortune can transform a player, a team, and a competition.
Other aspects are more pre-determined, but the outcome is no less predictable for all that. Take the All Blacks, for example. At the moment they are unbackable, for obvious reasons. They seem certain to win Pool C, catapulting them into the quarter finals against the runners up in Pool D, a far tougher group that includes France, Argentina and Ireland. Assuming for the sake of argument that France and Ireland go through, their relative positions in Pool D will have a material effect on the All Blacks chances of winning the final. If France wins Pool D, the All Blacks play Ireland in the quarter final, in what should be an easier match.
Assuming they win their semi-final the All Blacks might well meet France in the final. But the All Blacks should be hoping that Ireland wins Pool D, so that the New Zealanders play France first up. Why? Because if they do play France in the quarter final, they are likely to face a dispirited team unnerved by a recent loss to Ireland.
More importantly, that quarter final is played in Cardiff, a favoured ground for the All Blacks. More importantly still, Cardiff robs the French of home ground advantage. Facing France in the final, on the other hand, will mean playing a team on a high from reaching the final itself, and one energised by a fanatical Parisian audience.
If the All Blacks had a choice, surely they would prefer to face the dispirited French in Cardiff. But of course they don’t have the choice. One of the most critical factors in what in hindsight will seem their inevitable triumph or shock defeat is completely out of their hands. Which is what makes forecasts such as Thierry Lacroix’s so hollow, and tournaments such as the World Cup so compellingly unpredictable.
By Peter Marks