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As Stuart Lancaster is today officially unveiled as the England rugby team’s permanent head coach, one man will be side-stepping cones and practicing his rush defence on a training pitch in St Albans. That man could be forgiven for expecting a phone call or text message from Mr Lancaster, in recognition of the part he has played in the Cumbrian’s remarkable rise from England 2nd team coach to national saviour in a few short months.
That man is Charlie Hodgson, or ‘Stuart Lancaster’s Butterfly’.
The Butterfly Effect is a layman’s explanation of chaos theory or chaotic motion, specifically the theoretical example of a hurricane’s formation being contingent on whether or not a distant butterfly had flapped its wings several weeks before; or, in more general terms: the theory that a small variation at the beginning of a process can lead to a huge variation at a later stage.
Rewind to half-time on Saturday February 4th, Lancaster’s first game in temporary charge of England. Scotland are not only leading, but dominating. Suddenly, out of nothing, Charlie Hodgson charges down Dan Parks’ attempted clearance. The ball could go anywhere, but bounces into Hodgson’s arms and he goes over for the converted try, winning England a match by one score in what is probably their worst performance in recent memory – far worse than anything they produced under Martin Johnson.
However, the Butterfly Effect had begun.
Gradually, things started to improve for England. Another dismal display in the first half against Italy a week later was turned around after the break, albeit thanks to another fortuitous chargedown from Hodgson. But the performance was slightly better and the belief that they could win ugly was undoubtedly taken from that win at Murrayfield. Onto Twickenham against champions elect Wales, and for narrow defeat read moral victory. Confidence and momentum was building but Lancaster’s future would be decided in the final two matches – in Paris and back at HQ against Ireland on St Patrick’s Day. France were poor but the visitors were again improved and Lionel Beauxis’ lack of composure at the death handed England and more specifically, Lancaster, another tight, but crucial triumph. Was this enough to give the former Scotland age group international the job? Perhaps not quite, but the momentum was now so powerful that the players’ belief in the project resulted in destruction of Ireland and effectively forced the hand of the RFU – the rest, as they say, is history.
Let’s step back once more to February 4th, though. What if Lancaster’s Butterfly hadn’t flapped its wings and the ball had bounced in a different direction? England’s atrocious performance is alternatively rewarded with nothing other than an ugly defeat against the Auld Enemy. The statistics from the match are damning – Lancaster’s star doesn’t get off the ground, he is immediately under pressure and the players are already starting to lose belief. There is no momentum and suddenly that second half in Italy is a far more daunting prospect. Without the experience of winning ugly at Murrayfield, England lose to Italy as Charlie’s charge-down once again bounces the wrong way. The sharks begin to circle around Lancaster and, devoid of both belief and momentum, the players lose faith in the project, making defeats to Wales, France and Ireland inevitable. England finish with the Wooden Spoon and Lancaster’s chances of the top job are dead.
Of course, this is not what happened, and Lancaster has made the most of his fortune and now fully deserves his opportunity. What it illustrates, though, is how finely balanced international sport is, how important momentum can be, and how the bounce of a rugby ball – or the flap of a butterfly’s wing – can lead to something far, far more significant.