OPINION: It's the end of the season. The Chiefs have just retained their Super Rugby title and a breathless interviewer wants to know the secret of their success. He waves Craig Clarke over.
“So tell me, big man, how did you do it?” asks the man with the mic. The Chiefs captain considers the question. Someday soon Clarke may allow a smile to break through the sweat. He leans in and says, “Luck.”
The four letter word goes out live to the millions watching around the world. Pubs fall silent. Children are sent to bed. Blasphemy. Rugby matches aren’t decided by luck, not any more. The winners triumph through clever coaches, hard work and the courage and talent of the players.
Yeah, right. Those things will all play a big part in the ultimate outcome, but the deciding factor this year will be luck.
Ten days ago Toulon beat Clermont in the final of the European Cup because they got lucky. Clermont played the better rugby, they scored more tries, but the little decisions and the bounce of the ball went Toulon’s way.
There is far more luck than we would like to concede in modern rugby. That might go some way to explaining why there is no longer a dominant side in the Super Rugby. It might go some way to explaining why the last four winners of the World Cup have all been different.
But the Super Rugby is especially lucky. It is rigged before it even gets under way. You can call it the luck of the draw. Every team avoids two of the other 14 teams during pool play.
It goes without saying that if you avoid two of the stronger teams, you have an immediate advantage.
The teams with the best draws this year are the Cheetahs (avoiding the Crusaders and Brumbies), the Brumbies (Cheetahs and Chiefs), the Chiefs (Bulls and Brumbies) and the Crusaders (Cheetahs and Reds).
All four of those teams are in the top six.
The teams with the worse draws are the Blues (not playing the Kings and Force) and the Stormers (Highlanders and Force).
Yes, the Blues are hanging on in the top six, but they have yet to go to South Africa and I suspect they are on the slide.
The Stormers have struggled all season, but then they have also been hit by the refs. The man in the middle is having a huge influence on games.
If a team is hoping to win away, they might look at the ref for their upcoming match. A few Super Rugby refs have officiated over a number of away wins, but a number of other refs appear to be what used to be called ‘homers.’
In the crucial matches you need the decisions to go your way. The Crusaders had momentum on Friday night and then a match-changing decision went against them.
The Crusaders were driving for the line, two metres out, when Ben Tameifuna pulled down the maul. A minute earlier he had been pinged for collapsing a scrum.
Steve Walsh had two obvious options open to him. He should have yellow-carded the big prop for repeat offending and a cynical foul. He should also have awarded a penalty try. There is little doubt that the Crusaders would probably have scored – and probably is all that is required in law – if Tameifuna had not pulled down the maul.
Walsh’s non-decision may be the difference between the Crusaders winning the Super 15 – they still have a big chance – or going out in the knock-out stages because they have to go on the road. Luck went against them, just as it did when there was a pitch invasion during their loss to the Force.
Luck is an ever present force. There is the bounce of the ball, like the bounce that jagged into Kieran Read’s hand and nearly brought about a score. There is the luck of being injury free and having key players available at the right time. The Chiefs have lost players all season, the Crusaders were missing two thirds of their front row on Friday.
Sides will get lucky with the weather. It is hard to pick up bonus points for tries if it is constantly hosing down during your home matches. Tries are easier to come by over the season in Brisbane than they are in Christchurch.
We don’t much like the idea of luck. We like to think we live in a meritocracy that rewards hard work and talent. “You make your own luck,” we say.
Hmmm. The Post-It note was the result of a rubbish batch of glue. The lottery is exactly that, a lottery. The young geeks who were around at the start of the internet were in the right place at the right time.
Luck comes from an old German word, gelucke, meaning both luck and happiness. Luck is a good thing. It is an antidote to envy - he got lucky, not he was better than you.
The Greeks had great respect for fortune and fate. Don’t tempt fate. It’s all there in a fascinating book ‘Luck’ by Ed Smith that Glenn Turner recommended to me a couple of months ago.
Britain’s chief rabbi Jonathan Sachs said, “Modernity is the transition from fate to choice.” That’s why we keep bringing in things like the TMO. We are desperate to take fate out of things.
But it's not working is it, because luck is too strong. And that’s a good thing.
As Churchill said, “Without a measureless and perpetual uncertainty the drama of human life would be destroyed.” And we would know who is going to win the Super Rugby.
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