Saturday, February 03, 2007

A Bitter-Sweet Taste In The Mouth

I am a British mongrel, with a claim on supporting England, Scotland, and Wales at sport. For reasons personal and historic (primarily that I found Gavin Hastings an admirable human being, and Will Carling a thoroughly objectionable one), I support Scotland when it comes to rugby. A year ago, Scotland beat England in the Calcutta Cup match, to most people’s surprise. Today, England reclaimed the silver jug (which happens to be the oldest international trophy in the world), to the surprise of many.

I’m genuinely pleased to see the return of Jonny Wilkinson and Jason Robinson to the England side, both after long-term absence through career-threatening injury. They are a joy to watch, and between them they accounted for all but 5 of England’s 42 points this afternoon. Yes, I’d rather they had been playing anyone else other than the boys in dark blue.

Though the score-line of any given match (in this case, 42:20) may hide it, the difference between any international sides is very small. Three factors – catalysts, injury, and referee error – make the difference between winning and losing, and two of those are unfortunate.

In sporting terms, a catalyst is a player whose presence in the side transforms all the other players, so that the game they produce is greater than the sum of the parts (including the catalyst). Generally, it is good to have several catalysts in any squad, and two or (at most) three in the given team on the field: too many in play at one time results in a dissipation of the very energy having a couple of catalysts brings. Last season, Scotland were transformed by the catalyst captain Jason White; and this season they will miss his presence, due to injury. Since becoming world champions in 2003, England has missed the catalysts Wilkinson and Robinson, again through injury, until now (and, of course, other catalysts, such as Martin Johnston, through retirement). To switch to cricket, England won the Ashes in 2005 because of certain catalyst players (helped by the absence of Australian catalyst McGrath through injury); and comprehensibly lost the Ashes in 2006/7, with arguably a stronger squad in terms of the sum of the parts, because that squad lacked catalysts.

Today Scotland were without their key catalyst, while England got their’s back. Which brings us to injury: incidences of career-threatening or ending injury have risen dramatically since the game turned professional. To an extent, fitter players provide a more entertaining game for sponsors and fans. But the professional era has been bad for players, and is therefore bad for rugby. We are unlikely to be able to return to an amateur code (too many vested interests; too many infrastructure debts), but, beneath the surface the game is in a bad way and is unsustainable in its present form…

The third factor is referee error. While I enjoyed watching Jonny Wilkinson kick the ball today, I was seriously unimpressed by the decision, made by the fourth official (whose job is to watch replays where the match referee and linesmen did not get a clear view), to award him his try. The slowed-down replay showed beyond reasonable doubt that his right foot had made contact with the ground outside the touchline before he grounded the ball behind the goal-line. No fifteen men can expect to win against nineteen men. At 30-13 with 20 minutes still to play, England were certainly in control of the game, but things were far from over; having to concede 7 points you’ve actually just prevented was a critically harsh blow. Teams should win or lose on the merits of what they achieve on the pitch. England deserved to win the match this afternoon, though by a smaller margin.

There are lessons here for the missional church:

The Church needs to identify and include catalysts, among both clergy and laity, allowing them to bring their transforming energy to ‘the teams’ (as opposed to identifying and excluding them);

The Church needs to reconsider the injuring pressure that it puts on clergy, in particular, as ‘professional players’ (as well as the costs inherent in sustaining infrastructure);

The Church needs to recognise that those appointed to make decisions sometimes make bad decisions – that have lasting impact. While a game requires people who have been given the authority to make decisions concerning the ordered flow of play; and requires that players submit to that authority; these inherent requirements come with their own inherent flaws. The criteria on which decisions are made, along with the means to challenge them, and some possibility of redress, must be open to change in a transparent context.

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