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Dave Snowden; Life, work, rugby (December 2011)

(December 01, 2011)

Reflections on the 2011 Rugby World Cup


On the 15th of October this year I landed at Singapore’s Changi airport at 11:30am and got to the hotel room in time to unpack, find the sports channel and watch the first quarter of Wales' semi-final with France. I had then to walk across the road to Raffles hotel to perform a marriage ceremony for a good friend and only witnessed the heroic, but ultimately failed attempt to win despite the odds through the medium of text messages. Now, where I was brought up, it was accepted that from time to time it was possible, if not excusable, to have coincided a wedding with an international match. However it was accepted practice that in such circumstances television coverage would be made available. On this occasion my friend was Irish and a rugby supporter, so I suspect he was granted some form of prescience to know in advance that his team would be defeated in the quarter final and the timing of the ceremony was some form or sub-conscious revenge.

Like many people, I think this was probably one of our best ever opportunities to win the World Cup, with a full team in the final New Zealand - with an absent Carter and an injured McCaw - were there for the taking, so the might have beens and could have beens have kept me awake on many a night since. Mind you, eight years earlier, I had sat in the Telstra Stadium in Sydney on that magical night when what was considered by the coaches (but not by any Welsh fan) to be a second team were sent out as cannon fodder against the All Blacks and came oh so close to creating one of the biggest upsets in Rugby World Cup history. Some days later I had to endure the loss in the quarter final to a more street wise but less talented England team, made worse by the news being relayed by an English pilot on a flight home from Jo’burg. The English were lucky that year. The weather created the only conditions under which they could have beaten the French and the Australians had removed the All Blacks to provide an easier passage in the final.

All in all, and given that our last victory against the All Blacks was in the year I was conceived but not born, I am beginning to feel like the character Albanac in Alan Garner’s Moon of Gomrath who is doomed never to see the victory that results from his efforts. In my case loyal support over many years through good times and bad with much manipulation of travel schedules. I can’t for the life of me remember which character from the cannon of European folk law Albanac is based, but you get the point. And of course, in the 1970’s there were no World Cups, otherwise the tale would be a different one.

There was a double irony in this World Cup, in that Welsh success was based on selecting youth, but more importantly, with the final breaking of the booze culture which was too much a part of Welsh Rugby Culture for many years. Readers may remember than Henson’s autobiography raised questions about this and he was (in part) pilloried for his views. Now Warburton and others have created a very different culture and that, along with the performances on the field, have created a new international support for our small country; everyone one I have talked to wanted a All Blacks - Welsh final.

Now I haven’t yet commented on the Red Card which should have been a Yellow at most. Technically you can’t fault it. In terms of justice, well that is another matter. We were unfortunate to have one of the most consistent referees in Rugby at the match and the spear tackle is one for which he has been historically alert. The point here is however a wider one, and I was already in the middle of lecture tour where I was making a strong distinction between the application of rules and the use of heuristics. In a structured and predictable environment it is possible to create and apply rules, but when things get uncertain, complex and fussy, it's better to operate from heuristics. You can take the example of the US banking laws (and US law in general) which lays down laws and takes the view that anything which is not explicitly forbidden is allowed. Contrast that with the Government of Singapore who refused to let their banks trade in instruments which involved them betting on failure. The argument being a moral one, that the role of banks should be to build industry. Given the latest financial crisis that moral position has been vindicated as pragmatic.

Despite health and safety, most organisations rely on employees breaking the rules to get the job done. It's why 'work to rule' is a deadly weapon. That is, by the way, slightly hypocritical because if something goes wrong, the employee is blamed. Work that I and others do now, focuses on creating heuristics that apply to determine when a rule should be broken, and to govern behaviour in those circumstances. This is a pragmatic, not an idealistic approach. To give a personal illustration, many years ago when I was young and fit one, of my hobbies was rock climbing and I was qualified to lead up to 'medium difficulty' routes. One day, on the top of a tower on Conwy castle, my then five year old daughter managed to drop her much loved toy rabbit over the side. Now this was the rabbit without which sleep is impossible so I went over the side, climbed down 30 feet collected the rabbit and returned. My daughter’s response was worth the thirty minutes I spend talking to the Castle Wardens and Gwynedd Constabulary. Now, if you climb as a hobby, a castle wall is nothing. However I did not have the right footwear, nor protection so I was rigorous in applying the basic heuristic that you are taught from day one of learning to climb: three points of contact.

It seems to me that Rugby at the moment is becoming rule bound, and loosing the flexibility of heuristics. Intent and consequence are as much a matter of judgement in a rugby match, as a rule which can never fully account for circumstance. Not only that, the tip-tackle is common in Rugby League and there were far more dangerous and unpunished incidents throughout the World Cup. Hopefully that incident will create a change, as the role of the referee is becoming too much a part of the game. In big matches, the referee is the first name I check, even before the opposition team sheet, and that must be wrong.

The other interesting reflection that comes out of the World Cup is our inability as a nation to deal with talent. I am thinking now of two people who should have been in the pantheon of great Welsh Flyhalfs: namely Hook and Hensen. The later was World Young Player of the Year in that position and showed huge promise when playing from Swansea, aside from the off-field discipline problem. His comments on the Blessed Driscoll caused ire, but I always saw that as a working class lad speaking truth against a middle class icon who, for all his talent, is not adverse to gamesmanship. Afterwards, he was moved between positions and ignored by Welsh management for the tour to Australia, when it was clear he should have gone (mind you, it's worth remembering that they took Shane Williams as a wing … who could also back up the scrum half position). He is finally given a chance when not fully fit when Jones is injured again the Irish and then never selected in the position again. OK, as a centre he was awesome, but he would have been a greater fly half. Remember that match against the Japanese? I still hope that the Blues will give him a run in that position (and I am a Blues season ticket holder). We have a potent back line which is not being well served.

So we mess up one player, then along comes Hook whose talent is if anything greater and the Ospreys (who have ruined more good players than they have created) refuse to play him in his best position. After he plays well for Wales he looses his place by accident and then is thrown in against the French with his confidence shot to hell. Compare our treatment of those two, with the way the All Blacks nurtured Carter. We seem at times to have a death wish in Welsh Rugby, and to bring failure on ourselves.

Its not all doom and gloom though. The results in the first round of the Heineken Cup were outstanding for Llanelli and the Blues, although if I was an Osprey’s fan I would be worried. I was on the Gold Coast last weekend (before returning from a too long trip), but I saw a very young and very talented sevens team run circles around the English and Samoans to secure the Plate. Our development policy seems to be producing a stream of highly talented players - out of all proportion to our population. The thought of North and Cuthbert running at them at pace must have defence coaches quaking in advance of the Six Nations, In Lloyd Williams, we have a scrum half who reminds me of the great Gareth at times, and we have secured Shaun Edwards; not just for the national team, but for the development squad. Again, I suspect a part of that decision is that a northern Rugby League player probably feels more at home in South Wales than amongst the 'hunting, shooting and fishing' fraternity at Twickenham. Mind you, I almost found myself feeling sorry for them the other day [hope you're over it now – Ed.]; implosion is an inadequate word to describe what is going on there.

Dave Snowden, 1 December 2011
Founder & Chief Scientific Officer
Cognitive Edge Pte Ltd


If you liked this, you'll also enjoy:

     Life, work, rugby, by Dave Snowden (1 September 2011)

     Life, work, rugby, by Dave Snowden (1 June 2011)

      A sense of belonging: Wales and rugby, by Dave Snowden (25 August 2010)

     Dave Snowden's blog at Cognitive Edge


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