In December 2008, two doctors published a study
in the journal BMJ
investigating what they called the "urban legend" that there's a link between Welsh rugby and papal deaths. Specifically, that "every time Wales win the rugby grand slam, a Pope dies, except for 1978 when Wales were really good, and two Popes died."
They found that there was indeed a "borderline significant (P=0.047) association between Welsh performance and the number of papal deaths but no significant association between papal mortality and performance of any other home nation."
But despite this weak association, they nevertheless dismissed the theory of the pope-rugby link as "nothing more than an urban myth, based largely on two Welsh grand slam wins in recent memory."
This year, Wales won a grand slam again, but the pope didn't die. Perhaps this should have put the special theory of papal rugby to rest. But a recent letter
in BMJ cautions us not to dismiss the theory too quickly. If Coptic Popes are added into the mix, the pope-rugby link appears to become quite robust:
The authors have correctly stated the null hypothesis based on the saying “every time Wales win the rugby grand slam, a Pope dies, except for 1978 when Wales were really good, and two Popes died.” However they have only included Roman Catholic Popes in the outcome measures thus altering the statistical analysis to create a potentially false reassurance.
This year saw the death of the Coptic Pope, Shenouda III , on the very day that Wales won the grand slam. He was pope for 41 years and succeeded Cyril VI, who died in 1971, in the same month that Wales won the grand slam again. Coptic Popes are the heads of the ancient See of Alexandria and directly follow on from Mark the evangelist, thus having a legitimate claim to the title. Since the researchers sought to test the possibillity that there was a link between Welsh grand slam rugby victories and the death of a Pope it is crucial that this new information be brought to the attention of your readership. The relationship between these deaths and the sporting events may not be fully understood, however I believe that the original research has created a false reassurance and may be putting the lives of other Popes at risk.