England’s rugby demise – a GCSE lesson.

England’s rugby team failed the test as the Wales match approached its climax. This has lessons for how to approach exams. 

England exited the Rugby World Cup after losing to Australia, but for me the damage was done against Wales. I would argue that first loss was associated with “game management” and the parallels with “exam management” techniques are striking as we shall see.

A few weeks before the tournament, most critics would agree that the two teams were well matched. Then a few weeks before the match, Wales lost half their back line to injury, and during the match lost another half. Any small England selection errors were more than neutralised by Welsh misfortune. So duly, with 20 minutes to go, England were cruising, 10 points to the good, chances to extend.  And yet they lost. Why?

In my view, the following: some bad luck with events, but mostly game management.

Harold MacMillan, former U.K. Prime Minister, once famously answered a journalist who had asked what could blow Governments off course: “events, dear boy, events”. England could not cope with events that should have been surmountable.

enWhen Lloyd Williams hopefully kicked cross field, the oval ball could have bounced anywhere but in fact bounced perfectly into the hands of Gareth Davies to score. Bad luck, but it is how you react to events, and England’s game fell apart from there.


Another penalty conceded – more inability to understand what the referee wanted. (Are England penalised more than others despite, or because of, complaining a lot?)  Then the fateful decision to go for the win instead of kicking for goal, not in itself illogical – the kick was missable, and risks sometimes are needed  –  but the decision to throw short at the line out, and risk being pushed into touch, was poor.  Then one final chance, possession lost.

Stuart Lancaster, England coach, is reportedly a fan of the book and philosophy “The Score Takes Care of Itself” , in which Bill Walsh describes his experience as an American NFL Coach, arguing that the preparation, the little things, make the difference in leadership.  Admirable, but no amount of preparation can overcome a coach or player’s inability to react to, or influence, events as they unfold.

Stuart is clearly a fantastic coach who oozes integrity, but before the tournament he said one thing which surprised me along the lines of, “my input to a match ceases just before it starts”. This refers of course to preparation, but did it betray an element of believing that events would follow the natural course, and so for instance substitutions would always follow at the preordained time?

You feel that New Zealand would also have taken the line out instead of the kick, but would have found a way to control it and win, borne of the confidence of winning late many times. They would have found a way to win.

The great sports people and teams keep their game management together as the pressure builds. develdeDM_468x336Think, in contrast, of poor Jean van der Velde, the inexperienced French golfer who found himself only needing to avoid a triple bogey at the last to win the 1999 Open Championship at Carnoustie. In golf, we have “Course Management”, choosing the right clubs for distance, terrain, conditions. Unfortunately, Jean seemed to forget these guidelines, going via railings and rough to water. After removing socks and shoes he holed out for a 7 but lost the playoff,

England had one more chance, against Australia, but their confidence had gone. England lost the 1991 World Cup final against Australia because, by common consent, they listened to the critics and tried to play with flair instead of playing to their pack strength. Has the same thing happened recently?  England have focussed on addressing their perceived weakness – the attacking flair –  but judging by the way the Australian pack won scrum penalties, and had the edge at breakdown, it seems that England have let their forward advantage go.

And so England lost heavily to Australia. it probably would not have mattered had they beaten Wales. And that I would argue was due to Game Management.

Exam management

Think of the Maths exam as that rugby match. You are cruising through a twenty question paper, then just after half way you see a difficult question.  You get stuck, you take too long. You begin to panic, you answer a question on “direct proportion” but forget the principle of feeding back the answer to double check. It turns out to be a wrong answer.

Then you see an algebraic question which requires a quadratic equation to be solved. However much you try, you cannot get the factors. But you haven’t noticed the question says “answer to 3 decimal points” (if so you would realise there are no factors as such, you have to use the quadratic formula).

Then a question involving Pi asks you to leave the answer “exact”, but instead you insert many of its ongoing figures rather than leaving Pi itself in. More marks lost.  You fail to understand what the examiner wants, and what he will penalise you for.

You think you have an easy compound interest question. But you misread that it requires the final amount, not the interest paid. And you waste time doing the manual calculation as well, because you cannot find the “x to the n” button on the calculator.

A question on graphs  is on the next page. You think, “this used to be my strength, but now It is all about Real Life Graphs, with wordy problems about bike rides and punctures. It’s a weakness now, I will have to pass!”

The next one looks easier. But no, it’s on Transformations. I can remember Reflections, but not the one that also begins with “Tr”? It all seemed so easy on my “maths-to-go” and “maths R us” websites. For a moment you remember an old black and white video you saw, what was his name, Brain Clough? “We had a good team on paper. Unfortunately football is played on grass”. You muse that this exam is the reverse, I can do the questions on the computer, unfortunately exams are on paper”.

Then finally you come to the last question. The bell will sound in a few minutes. It looks difficult but features probability, your strength. Decision time. Should I go back and pick up some easy marks by finishing an earlier one, or go for the five marker? You go for the latter.

But what’s this, it starts with probability and bags of sweets, and ends with an algebraic proof of n² – n – 90 = 0.  “I have no clue how these things are connected! I give up”!

In conclusion

Could this happen, or is it just that nightmare where you dream you haven’t done your revision? Well consider this. It has happened and very recently. Thousands of students were approaching their Maths paper’s end – almost injury time so to speak – when they came across exactly that probability question above.  The complaints caused a Twitter storm. Read the story, it went viral,

In fact a reasonable student could have solved this, had they stayed calm at the vital moment andlinked two seperate methods.  Exam management, just like game and course management, can be the difference between achieving your goals and just missing out.  You still made you’re A* to C, but not the A*.  You have the abiility, but the sheer mechanics let you down

The week between the Australia match and the final, irrelevant match against Uruguay will be the longest week of the team’s lives. Plenty of time to reflect on what might have been, just like the Summer Holidays for a student who might think “if only…”.

2 thoughts on “England’s rugby demise – a GCSE lesson.

  1. David

    On the topic of exam strategy I still remember getting a paper back at school with a mark of ‘0’ and the initials “A.T.Q.” in red – no credit given if you don’t “Answer the question” as set and not the question you would prefer to answer!

    1. Rick 1 Post author

      Thanks David. The “answer the question” issue is as relevent as ever especially as the new syllabus contains more of an emphaisis on “applied problems”. Sometimes you just want them to give you some numbers and process them! Understanding the quesation is a skill in itself!

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