Paddy Upton

Luck wins World Cups

Luck wins World Cups

In recent weeks I’ve been asked more times than I can count:

 “Who do you think will win the World Cup?”

The first answer is, “Which one, cricket rugby?” Regardless, I have the same answer for both.

The team that wins will be the luckiest one. Mark these words.

A closer look will reveal that at the start of each these World Cup tournaments, there were around four teams that had a decent chance of winning. And maybe a fifth nation that had an outside chance.

The reason these four or five teams had a chance of winning is because they already have the required:

  • talent
  • game plans
  • leadership – specifically, one that is capable of blending individual skills and personalities into one cohesive unit.

This leaves luck as one of the main ingredients that will distinguish the winner from the rest. And luck most often plays out in the following three areas.

The eventual winner will be lucky enough to have:

  • their best players available in the final – they won’t be sick or injured
  • most of their best players in good form at the right time (during play-offs)
  • the bounce of the ball go in their favour, which includes factors outside of their control such as those 50/50 referee/umpiring decisions, weather conditions and literally the bounce of the ball.

Of course, the team that does end up winning will attribute their triumph to their smart strategy, commitment, teamwork, and similar. This, despite the fact that each of the top teams will have exhibited similar amounts of these exact same things.

In the past, and again now, the main difference is very often the ‘luck factor’. Many will think I’m speaking crap, an opinion which will be supported by the fact that few coaches or captains will say they won because we were lucky. Ask any experienced and intelligent international player or coach and they will admit, in hushed tones, that luck plays a far greater role in winning games than is given credit.

 In the current rugby World Cup, it was unlucky, unfortunate or bad planning that New Zealand met Ireland and South Africa met France in the quarterfinals. This should ideally have been the semi-final draw between the world’s top four ranked teams. Ireland and France can be justified if they feel a little miffed about exiting so early.

 It reminds me of the 2011 cricket World Cup. I was involved in coaching the Indian team when we met Australia in the quarterfinals, in a clash of arguably the two best teams at that tournament. Both teams knew that whoever won that quarter final had the odds in their favour of going the distance. India beat Australia and as predicted, went on to record fairly convincing wins in the semi-finals and finals.

As for the current rugby World Cup, the odds will be heavily stacked in favour of the current two top ranked teams, South Africa and New Zealand, advancing to the finals ahead of their 5th and 7th ranked opponents, England and Argentina.

But the beauty of a sport is that the expected outcome won’t automatically materialize on the day. Both New Zealand and South Africa need to navigate two red flags – as far as I see it.

Firstly, these two teams had mentally and emotionally draining games against very good opposition in the quarterfinals. The fact that both games went down to the wire would have further emptied their mental and emotional reserves.

In sport we can measure physical energy output via GPS tracking devices attached to player jerseys. By measuring waking heart rates and via a few questions, we can assess their recovery and readiness for physical activity.

We have no way of measuring mental and or emotional energy levels. South Africa and New Zealand players will be running low on both. In my experience, recovering these levels takes more time than recovering physical fitness.

An obvious rugby example of this was the previous rugby World Cup. In the England vs New Zealand semifinal, England completely emptied their tanks in trumping New Zealand 19-7. They played the ‘game of their lives’ in that outing. I publicly predicted that it was highly unlikely they would deliver anywhere near that same level of intensity the following week in the final. And they didn’t. They were a shadow of the previous weeks team and were schooled 32-12 by South Africa.

One key give-away in how much emotion a game drains from a team, is how much they celebrate winning that game. The greater the celebration, the more they will have been drained.

The best teams only truly celebrate when they win the final. Conversely, when a team celebrates an earlier game like they have just won the final, there’s a decent chance they won’t end up getting that far. That game often ends up being their peak performance.

The other red flag for both New Zealand and South Africa this coming weekend, is they go in as the favourites, with England, and Argentina as the underdogs. The underdogs have nothing to lose, which often frees them up to fully express themselves without the fear of failure.

Conversely, the favourites have everything to lose, this often prevents them fully expressing themselves on the field. They can be lured into the trap of being hesitant, over-cautious, or too conservative. If they play cautiously, and on slightly empty mental and emotional tanks, then an upset is on the cards.

The cricket World Cup is still in the round robin stages. Upsets are already happening. The team that wins this year’s cricket world cup will be the team that is luckiest.

With one twist worth mentioning. Finals are often won not by the team that plays the best, but by the team that makes the fewest mistakes.

When a team makes a final for their first time, they often make the common mistake of thinking that they need to do something extra special because it is a special occasion. This mindset is the direct route to mistakes.

Teams who have previously made the finals know to keep it simple – to stick to their strengths, focus on a familiar game plan, and know that they have more time than they think. Panic and pressure cause athletes to rush. Or choke. And choking is not bad luck because not choking is entirely within the individual and teams control.

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