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Does Rugby Predict Pope's Doom?

As I was paging through a special Sport section in a December issue of the British Medical Journal (the source of Tuesday’s post on noisy golf clubs), two words caught my eye: papal rugby.Those words were part of a larger phrase (the special and general theories of papal rugby) that makes no more s...

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Ireland vs. Wales 2006 rugby match, courtesy of Flickr user BobTheCorkDwarf




As I was paging through a special Sport section in a December issue of the British Medical Journal (the source of Tuesday’s post on noisy golf clubs), two words caught my eye: papal rugby.



Those words were part of a larger phrase (the special and general theories of papal rugby) that makes no more sense. So I went back to the beginning of the paper, “Rugby (the religion of Wales) and its influence on the Catholic church: should Pope Benedict XVI be worried?” to try to make sense out of the strange collection of words.



There is an urban legend in Wales that states: “every time Wales wins the rugby grand slam, a pope dies, except for 1978 when Wales were really good, and two popes died.” Three researchers from Wales set out to test if the urban legend were true (and convinced the BMJ to print their results).



First a bit of explanation is needed since many of us—me included—are not familiar with the sport. Rugby is a form of football that originated in England and is sort of like a cross between soccer and American football. A grand slam in rugby is accomplished when whichever team that wins the Six Nations Championship (or its predecessor) does so by winning every match.



The researchers (rugby fanatics, I’m sure) developed two theories. The special theory of papal rugby states that “when Wales win a grand slam, the chance of a papal death in that year increases.” The general theory, meanwhile, says that “when Wales perform particularly well, the expected number of papal deaths increases.” The researchers then set about tracking the rugby championships and their relationship to papal deaths from 1883 to the present.



Their first conclusion: the urban legend (the special theory) is wrong despite the coincidence of the last three popes dying in years of Wales grand slams (the likely source of the myth). As for the general theory, they found a borderline significant association (P=0.047 for those of you who know what that means) between the Welsh wins (though not any other teams) and the number of papal deaths; two popes died in one year (1978) and that happened to be the year of a Wales grand slam.



However, now that we are in a new year, the math may need to be redone. The researchers counseled Vatican medical staff to be on guard until the end of 2008, as Wales won the grand slam last year, but the pope still lives. Does that doom the general theory of papal rugby as well?
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About Sarah Zielinski
Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is an award-winning science writer and editor. She is a contributing writer in science for Smithsonian.com and blogs at Wild Things, which appears on Science News.

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