Ulster Rugby Reborn?

ravenhill-actionMy friend, Niall, who edits the Belfast Telegraph Rugby Supplement (published every Friday) invited me to write a few words for the penultimate edition of the Supplement as the rugby season winds down. This is what I wrote:

If some Ulster rugby supporters turned up at church last Sunday morning looking a little forlorn on what is meant to be the most joyful day on the Christian calendar, the reason was clear. After a couple of poor away games, Ulster returned to what we used to call “Fortress Ravenhill” to deliver a less than impressive performance against Cardiff which left many supporters, myself included, feeling distinctly blue at the beginning of Easter Day. Thankfully, after the second verse of “Thine be the glory”, I began to feel better.

With a couple of games to go in the Magners League, we are beginning to draw a line under this season and to look forward to the possibility of better, more consistent performances from our men next season. But what will bring that about? Is it all about money and bringing in new, high-class players on expensive contracts? Is it about Ulster getting back to basics and improving skills in the fundamental aspects of the game? Is it about mental strength and commitment, and not letting heads drop after an early mistake or two?

One piece of interesting advice comes from an unusual source. In his latest book, Virtue Reborn, the Anglican Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, has some pertinent comments on the whole question of developing what he calls “virtue”, and what many of us call “character”. He describes a conversation he had with a former very distinguished star of English rugby. They were talking about the massive changes that had taken place in the game in the last ten or fifteen years, with the increased professionalisation and the enormous pressure on younger players to produce results.

“The players today, he said, are overcoached. They are taught dozens of moves – how to respond to this situation, how to defend against that strategy, how to keep the game under control, how to open it up. But few of them any longer play the game for fun, acquiring as they do so that sixth sense for how things work which would enable them to improvise in totally new situations.  As a result, they’re lost when something unexpected happens. They haven’t been given a set of rules for what to do in those circumstances. What they lack is a deeply formed character which would “read” the game with a kind of second nature and come up with a shrewd and quick solution.”

Wright makes his point about the importance of character by referring to the example of Chelsey Sullenberger III, (known to his friends as “Sully”) the US airline pilot whose plane collided with a flock of geese shortly after take-off from LaGuardia Airport in New York. Sullenberger miraculously managed to land his plane and her passengers safely on the Hudson River without any loss of life. Sullenberger’s achievement was to have so formed his character by thousands of small choices and learned decisions over many years, that when the critical test came he did by “second nature” what was required. No set of rules could have prepared him to cope with that emergency.

It seems that so many critical decisions in rugby are now made in a nanosecond, whether in terms of passing, tackling, or at the breakdown after a tackle, so that only those players whose character is correctly shaped and whose responses are second nature, will perform successfully.

It was Aristotle, 350 years before the time of Jesus, who developed a pattern of character transformation by claiming that character is formed by three things. First, you have to aim at the right goal. Second, you have to figure out the steps you need to get to that goal. Third, those steps have to become habitual, a matter of second nature. He said that, by nurturing and practising the four principal virtues of courage, justice, prudence and temperance, the goal of becoming a happy or flourishing human being would be reached.

That vision was taken to a new level by the remarkable moral challenge of Jesus who calls us, not merely to live according to the rules, but to be personally and internally transformed by his grace. Recent failures in places far away from the rugby pitch have shown us that it is this transformation of character, not just more rules, which is desperately needed by us all, including bankers, politicians and clergymen.

People who are suddenly hailed as “heroes” and whose actions are described are “miraculous” are people whose characters have been formed in this way. The player, who in the crisis of a game, manages to pull off the impossible kick or make the miraculous tackle is more often than not the player who has practiced that kick or tackle over and over again in practice until it has become second nature. South African golfer, Gary Player, once responded to a critic who described him as “lucky”. “Yes”, he said, “and I’ve discovered that the harder I practice, the luckier I get.”

With that transformed character fully operative – like an airline pilot with a lifetime’s experience, or a rugby player with well-honed skills – the hard work up front bears fruit in spontaneous decisions and actions that reflect what has been formed deep within.

I will renew my Ulster Rugby membership for next season in the confidence that the character of the members of the Ulster squad will continue to be developed under their guidance of their committed coaching staff. And if their performances next season show that some areas still need to be worked on, then I will reflect on the many areas in my own character that also need attention, and I will resolve, by God’s grace, to see them transformed.