Friday, 6 May 2005

Of causality and rugby

Well, the inevitable has happened. Seeing as this is a blog by South Africans, a post on rugby is probably long overdue. Yes, dear reader, we seem to be scraping the barrel of creativity with the blunt object of mediocrity in the darkened room of indolence. Uhm.

What I actually want to write about is one of my pet hates with rugby post-match analysis. It is something I have seen and heard quite often this year in the wake of the poor showing by SA teams in the Super 12 competition. How many times have you heard comments like: "If he only kicked his kicks" or "He missed five penalties which cost them the game"? It sounds all logical and reasonable to say, doesn't it? Well, that's where the problem lies: such quotes depict a situation which cannot happen. Let me explain.

If a penalty kick is converted, play restarts from a centre field kick-off. If it is missed, it is a 22-metre drop-out. This means that each time a penalty is taken, the outcome determines how the rest of the game will pan out. If the first penalty is missed and not converted, the game changes from that point onward. The 22-metre drop-out starts a whole chain of events that will never ever lead to the other situations again where the other kicks were missed. They will never happen again in the same way. There might be other penalties, but they will result from the game as played from the first restart after the first kick. There might be no penalties, hence nothing to miss.

OK, let's take it one step at a time. A penalty is awarded, the kick is taken. It goes over. Restart from the centre. The ball lands in a different place, a different player collects it, does totally different things with it and all the variables of field size, individual player option taking, weather, referee decisions, bounce of the ball etc. come into play. The game cannot lead up to exactly the same situation as when the kick was missed. It can also not be said the same tries would have been scored or the end-result would have been the same. If Team A lost by 2, and someone says "Sheesh, if he only kicked that one penalty he missed, then we would have won," it is a false statement. If he kicked that penalty, the game would have changed and Team A might have lost by 20. They might have won by 5. Nobody knows. Yet.

This means, in retrospective match analysis, at a long shot, only try conversions count, because they lead to the same restart. But it might be another ball used, that' spins differently and gets dropped, so even that's a bit of a risky statement to make. After every event, the result of that event, as but one variable, determines what will happen next.

Sad but true.

That is the flow of time and causality for you. I am of course not even attempting to dabble in mathematical equations and working out the probability of the same sequence of events happening even if a kick was over/ not over, I agree that there is a theoretical possibility, but I will have to see it to believe it, and for that to happen, someone must record a game, figure out a way of going back in time, tweak a variable, and let it play itself out again. And that brings with it my favourite conundrum: if that is done and the result ended up the same, who says we would be having this discussion? I might only have thought of this issue because the team lost and someone said "he should have kicked his kicks." If my team won, no-one would have said it, I wouldn't have thought it and written about it, and you wouldn't have read this. And if you wouldn't have read this, your life would have taken a minor change in direction, even if it's only because 3 minutes of your time wasn't taken up by such rubbish.

I like the concept. Go and watch Kimi Ga Nozomu Eien - you'll see it there as well.

And that, good reader, is my theory...

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