The definition of success as seen in the Autumn Internationals

Date posted: 08/11/18

November is always a notable month in the international rugby calendar. Every year the traditional Southern Hemisphere heavyweights of New Zealand, Australia and South Africa arrive in Europe to play a series of hotly contested test matches against the best teams north of the equator.


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But a year out from a World Cup, these fixtures take on an extra degree of significance. They provide an opportunity for the Six Nations sides in particular to test themselves against the best, to see how they are shaping up prior to rugby’s global showpiece.


Back in 2002, England overcame New Zealand, Australia and South Africa on consecutive Saturdays at Twickenham, signalling their intent eleven months before clinching the World Cup itself.


A chance to make a statement


This autumn is no different, with both England and Ireland (between them winners of the past five Six Nations Championships) hoping to prove themselves against the very best side there is - the All Blacks.


New Zealand have dominated international rugby for a decade, winning the last two World Cups. At the time of publication, they have topped the world rankings for the past 3341 days, losing a mere 10 test matches in their past 121.


They are, indisputably, the benchmark for all international rugby teams.


Hence the anticipation surrounding this first meeting between Eddie Jones’ England and New Zealand. It provides, at long last, a chance for this England side to test themselves against the world’s number one outfit.


While for Jones himself, after a rocky past twelve months, it is a much-needed opportunity for him to justify his own work to the rugby watching public. A victory would quieten the doom-mongers and prove that England are more than a match for the world’s elite.


It is a similar story for Ireland and Joe Schmidt. Defeating the All Blacks in Dublin would serve as evidence for how far Ireland have progressed under his leadership. 


For both England and Ireland, this Autumn provides a golden opportunity to lay down a marker and cement their position as true World Cup contenders. 


Striving for sporting success is something we all do


But it isn’t just in international sport that a striving for recognition, a striving to prove oneself against a benchmark is commonplace. It is a central aspect of all sport, from the professional to the amateur. 


“If we can beat them then that shows that we belong at this level.” 


“If I can just clock that time then that proves I’m a good enough runner.” 


“I’m the top wicket taker in the league, surely that proves to the captain that I can be trusted with the new ball.”


Now, of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with a striving to be the best at one’s sport, or a desire to prove oneself against strong competitors.


But if hitting a certain benchmark, achieving a certain time or beating a particular opponent is how you seek to prove yourself as a person, if that is where you find your justification for your life, then you may well never be satisfied.


It is why so many athletes come out of retirement - they still need one more Olympic medal or one more league title. In fact that desire for just one more triumph is evidence itself that “one more” is never enough.


This constant striving for achievement is described by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Colossians as a “greed which is idolatry” (Colossians 3 v 5). 


In other words, behind this sporting “greed” (ie - this constant desire for greater achievement) is an idolising of success. “I know I’ll be truly happy if I get picked for that team”, “If I win the gold medal then I’ll feel valuable”.


At its root is a need to justify ourselves to the world around us. And this desire is a disordering of God’s intentions. Instead of seeking worth in how God views us, we attempt to define our worth by our achievements.


Yet the reality is that no number of great achievements will ever be enough. There will always be a need to be successful in one more tournament, one more season, one more match. This constant drive towards a benchmark that we want to reach will not satisfy.


Ultimate value comes from God


In contrast, Paul urges the Colossians to put on a “new self” that is “chosen, holy and dearly loved” (Colossians 3 v 12). This new self is not earned by any type of physical success, but rather is given to us by a gracious God.


Instead of striving for worth and value in what we achieve - a striving that will leave us ultimately unfulfilled - Paul tells us to remember who we are, people “chosen” and “dearly loved” by God. This frees us to do our best, to work towards that desired benchmark, but not let our subsequent success or failure define us.


It is the liberating truth for the Christian. They can put their all in to beating the All Blacks but can be assured that, whatever their performance and whatever the result, they are of infinite worth to the Creator of the Universe. 


It promises to be a fascinating couple of weekends as England and then Ireland take on the All Blacks. Will either side be able to register a famous victory over the number one side in world rugby? It remains to be seen.


But whatever the results this Autumn or at the World Cup in Japan next year - neither the players nor their coaches are ultimately defined by their success on the rugby field. As passions run high in the closing minutes at Twickenham, this is a truth worth remembering.




Watch and share ‘The Two Sides of Sport’ - a short film featuring top level rugby players talking about their rugby and their faith, including a talk with Rico Tice.