I remember watching Australia beat Namibia 142-0 in 2003. As much as I loved the underdog – I’m a Newcastle United fan, although fan might be too strong a word – I remember going through a series of contradictory emotions: pity, embarrassment, shock, humour. In a match so one-sided I’m not sure the winners learn anything at all. Look at the England football team who recently put six goals past San Marino in, as one pundit put it, ‘their back yard.’ If England had scored ten no fan would have been surprised, and yet if they’d only scored one there would have been outrage at a lacklustre performance. England couldn’t win and, I suspect, New Zealand – who are already 10-0 up as I’m writing this – can’t either. My U13s football team used to hand out thrashings, often 30-odd-0, every week. It was boring and we didn’t improve. We didn’t need to.
So what about Namibia? What can they learn from the shellacking (15-0) that they’re currently receiving? I genuinely don’t think that being roundly beaten every week is very useful.
Namibia’s coach, Phil Davies, rather bravely – though accurately – told reporters beforehand that they wouldn’t win but that they would go out to enjoy a match against the best rugby team in the world. But just enjoying the ride isn’t going to help them. I’d expect, given how rugby coaches tend to focus on the particular and the technical, that Namibia have very specific areas which they’ll be focussing on (29-6). Perhaps these are successful line-outs (though the evidence so far suggests not), reaching a certain pass-completion percentage or maybe gaining, and converting, penalties (more successful).
But either way I wonder how much they can learn against a team so ruthlessly efficient and unforgiving as New Zealand. Then again, if you don’t test yourself against the best …
One reason we don’t put routinely put even the most obscenely precocious Y7s through the horror of GCSEs is that we don’t want to harm them emotionally. We want to test and stretch and pull and relax, but not tear: that would be as unproductive as it would be plain mean. We might well, of course, hold high expectations but we aren’t in the business of feeding our young to the lions.
A little while ago the Football Association launched a campaign to stop putting small children in giant goals on adult pitches. They argued this was not only unfair but detrimental to a young footballer’s development. While I’m in absolute favour of this I also reckon that my friends and I learned a huge amount about how to play the game by training with the men’s team. Now, was that because we felt less pressure (we weren’t playing in the actual games) or because they treated us differently?
Indeed, at half-time tonight Namibia are 34-6 down, rather better than 69-0 to Australia in 2003. I realise that I’m hugely oversimplifying the matter, but is there an argument that by playing games against much better teams Namibia have gained experience and thus improved?
I gained my first starring role in the school production in Y8 where I was acting alongside sixth-formers: didn’t that help me improve? I became the lead singer of the school’s soul band in Y9 alongside GCSE and A-Level musicians: did that experience not better my musicianship? Or was this more to do with my own musical talent, or the skill of my teachers in their orchestration?
If Namibia keep the score down tonight will they believe it’s been a successful evening? Probably. They’re at the Rugby World Cup – success for them is framed differently, though still appropriately, than to a brilliant Y7 author.
That’s the thing about teaching: we’re framing, often very similar things (a skill, knowledge, an attitude), all the time. We’re choosing how and when to change pace. Namibia don’t have that choice. They’re already there. Our students aren’t quite yet.