England v Australia: The Limits to a Rugby Dream

November 7, 2009

Jonny Wilkinson

England versus Australia at Twickenham promised to be a long-awaited dream, the return of super-hero Johnny Wilkinson. In the end it revealed both the power and the limit of dreams and visions

Listening to the match warm-up, I was struck by the power that the dream held over the English commentators. The programme began with film reminding everyone of the glorious history of JW culminating in the drop goal that won a world cup, and launched a thousand dreams of England rugby supremacy.

It was not to be. Ah, but in the lean years JW had been injured. The extent of the injuries somehow promised more for the time when he would come back. And in the true style of heroes he went to a foreign land to recover. Now he was returned. Australia had lost five out of six of their last internationals. All seemed to signal an opportunity for the dream to come true.

The dream start

In the movies, the game would start badly and England would fight back to snatch victory. In fact England had a dream start. JW oozed confidence and competence. Every touch was cheered by the crowd. Yes, the team collectively also seemed to draw confidence from somewhere. The mistakes which marred England’s performances in recent matches were near eliminated, and it was Australia who gave away penalties. And it was Wilkinson who stepped up to take his first kick and the old magic was still there. So team, crowd, and commentators were at one. This game was destined to be won.

Unnoticed signals

As a neutral observer I was less influenced by the dream. England were playing better, but there was a familiar ponderousness in attack. In contrast Australia were quicker in defence and attack. Only those unexpected mistakes were keeping England in the game. Meanwhile the commentators continued to be on Wilco watch. And he was playing well. England held on to their lead (all penalties). But Australia cut through for the only try, and created and spilled more chances.

Into the second half and Australia seemed more and more likely to score tries, England less likely. When Australia were still behind I noted ‘Final score: Aust by at least 4 points’. Thirty seconds later another incisive break and it was 18-9 a scoreline which Australia defended rather comfortably.

Leadership lessons?

The iinfluence processes of a charismatic leader remains a bit of a mystery. Current theories suggest a symbolic process through which a social group simplifies reality into a belief system. That is part of what is also called sense-making. The result can help the group overcome fears and anxieties. The cost is that of holding unrealistic beliefs of the leader’s capabilities to be a saviour.

I rather think JW had a positive effect on team performance which lasted through the game. England did not wilt. They did not lapse into recent error-prone ways. Individuals played to their potential. It just wasn’t quite good enough. The dream helped. But there was a limit beyond which the dream could not survive.