To bonus point or not to bonus point, that is the question

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In the last few months there have been rumblings in the media about the 6 Nations needing to adopt the Bonus Point system. Allegedly this pressure is from both internal and external parties (namely the English RFU and broadcasters & sponsors). Let’s have a look at the pros and cons and see what all the fuss is about.

The major stumbling block for the adoption of the BP into the 6 Nations is that a team could go undefeated and yet not win the tournament. It’s unlikely but certainly possible. At the other end of the spectrum a team could get whitewashed and yet not finish last under BP. Some BP proponents say “Well, so what? If Team A played very boring rugby and squeaked by some teams and Team B played exciting rugby but were unlucky, then they probably are the better team and deserve the title”. The counter-argument from traditionalists tends to be “Sacrilege! The Grand Slam is the holy grail of the 6 Nations, winning that means you’re the best team, any other scenario is insane. Since the BP system can be exploited to undermine the Slam it’s therefore not applicable to this tournament.” A reasonable argument one would think, but ultimately it’s a pretty weak one too. There are compelling reasons not to add the BP system, but this isn’t one of them. For a start it’s not a very likely scenario but more importantly, it assumes that the organisers are too stupid to see this problem and/or too lazy to do something about it. They could easily get around this issue by assigning a special Grand Slam Bonus worth 3 points thus ensuring the sanctity of the Slam.

The real issue lies within the fixtures. Ever since the 6 Nations expanded to include Italy, fixture-wise it’s become lopsided, some teams having three home games one year and three away the next. Wales were the first team to ever win the tournament playing more away games than home ones in ‘05. Ireland followed suit in ’09. Should the BP system take that into account? Should every team play each other twice like the Rugby Championship? Kick Italy out and have two home and two away games for everyone, like before? Or add Georgia and bring it up to three a piece?

In the RWC, the only tournament without the home and away game structure to employ the BP system, bonus points are used to determine which teams finish 1st and 2nd in the pool, and therefore progress to the next round. Similarly, in the Heineken Cup, although all teams meet twice the bonus point comes in useful for comparing performance across pools, to determine which of the 2nd placed teams make it to the next round. In both cases at the knockout stages the BP system is no longer applicable. The 6 Nations isn’t really a ‘pool scenario’; 2nd place is scant consolation to most teams or fans, triple crowns are great but coming 1st is all that really matters. In the 6 Nations the BP would really only be used to break a tie for first place, and there are other ways of doing that, so is the BP even needed for the 6 Nations? trophy

Those are pretty strong arguments against the BP System, so why bother with any more discussion? The answer lies in what the BP factor does to individual games. Teams chasing the bonus point tend to play a much more exciting style of rugby. Since the turn of the century there’s been a fairly steady decline in the number of tries scored in 6 Nations games, down from an average of 5 per game in the early ‘00s to 3.1 in ‘12. This is not to say that low scoring matches are always dull but the trend is potentially a cause for concern for organisers, sponsors and broadcasters. As clichéd as it sounds, these days rugby is run as a business like any other, and try-orientated games are what the punters want to see. From a broadcasting or sponsorship perspective it’s a no-brainer. A second point made by BP supporters is that the BP has now become so ubiquitous in other competitions that it’s no longer unfamiliar to fans so why not? Further, with the BP in place there are generally more permutations for victory which means a more exciting final weekend for everyone.

So let’s consider how bonus points would affect the current championship after two rounds. As it currently stands, England are undefeated in their first two games and at the top, France have lost both their matches and are at the bottom with everyone else somewhere in between, organised by points difference and in the case of Wales and Ireland, tries scored.

If you add bonus points, not much changes. Position-wise it’s almost the same, except Wales and Ireland would swap places because Ireland picked up a bonus point in their defeat to England. What it would do however, is solidify England’s position over everyone else given that they scored four tries in one of their two matches. It isn’t wholly representative though; knowing that a BP is on offer might have changed the tactics employed by the teams during those matches (especially in the final minutes). Would England have kicked for touch at the death against Ireland on Sunday or would they have gone for the posts in an attempt to prevent Ireland from getting a losing bonus point? Would France have taken a crack at getting within 7 points with a few minutes to go against Wales to ensure a bonus point for themselves? Would Wales have done the same in their match against Ireland? The losing BP can keep a match exciting at the end as losing teams still have something to aim for.

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As it is, France’s hopes of winning the tournament at this stage are almost gone. No team has ever won the 6 Nations with less than eight points and the best they can get now is six. This could lead to poorer turnout at matches, pubs and less people watching it on TV – especially on the last weekend of the competition which is not what anyone wants. With the bonus point, lower ranked sides would have a marginally better shot at competing for the title, especially if they improved their game and began scoring tries. That’s what everyone wants to see. That would be exciting.

The problem is that proponents of the BP system see it as a catch-all solution without taking into account the uniqueness of the 6 Nations Championship itself. Any bonus point system would have to be modified (and not just by adding a Grand Slam bonus) rendering the argument that people are familiar with the system moot. It would probably be clunky and unappealing. However, while the BP isn’t a perfect fit for the Championship as a whole, it might nudge matches into becoming more open and free flowing. One alternative could be to use try difference instead of points difference to decide ties. That might encourage attacking play while simultaneously acknowledging good defensive work, and not threatening the sanctity of the Grand Slam. As it stands now, if you took try difference into account ahead of points difference the current table would be the same. However if teams going into the final weekend know they need to score X number of tries to win or prevent a win, then that could make the final weekend more exciting. A way of increasing the try count is probably something which does need to be looked at. And until this is addressed the 6 Nations organisers are going to be under pressure to adopt the BP system.

What do you think? Can you think of any better solutions than kicking Italy out? (The French XV might like that, but I wouldn’t). Is tinkering with a so-far successful formula even worth the risk? Is the lack of tries even a problem?

By John O’Brien

You can follow John on Twitter here

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34 comments on “To bonus point or not to bonus point, that is the question

  1. I do wonder precisely what the problem is that BP’s are meant to solve. Is it solely the gradually reducing try per game average?

    Or is someone with a degree in Marketing and a need to make an impact in their job, deciding that it is this that prevents more “occasional” viewers on TV, or higher value sponsors from getting involved?

    I may be wrong, but I do not think that ticket sales are an issue? If they were, one would assume that Scotland at home to Italy would have been the big problem game, and I am not sure that BP’s would have changed that game for the better!

    It is very much over-simplistic to link the number of tries to the interest of “occasional” fans. Some non-rugby experts at work were very excited about the 4 penalties to 2 game in Dublin, purely because of the tension, as each team strove for the win – and no more.

  2. Whenever people people talk about the reduction in Six Nations tries they never seem to mention that it’s come about because from Italy no longer gets a royal thumping every round, not because teams are less willing to play a more exciting brand of rugby. In the 2000 Six Nations England put 8 tries past Italy, Ireland 6 and France 5. Of course there were more tries scored in the olden days.

  3. The vagaries of the weather and only one venue having a roof surely render this a non-starter. During the second round of matches in 2011, Italy hosted England on a freezing snowbound pitch. Wales hosted Scotland the next day at an indoor stadium over a thousand miles away. France v Ireland meanwhile was postponed. As such you can’t fairly reward 4 tries in one game as more worthy than 2 in another.

  4. Great article!

    I’ll throw my hat into the “no bonus points” ring for the aforementioned reasons of: tournament not long enough; weather dictates play; it ain’t broke.

    I’ve been more excited about this championship than for a number of years. Maybe that’s because it is a Lions year or maybe it’s because, judging by my shocking predictions on Superbru, i’ve no idea who is going to win each match!

  5. This may be a post for another article but does anyone else think that the durability of the pitches this year is worse than any other? It was shocking this weekend.

    I’ll be interested to see how the Saracens artificial pitch goes down because i reckon that might vastly improve games.

    • Re Pitches; Spike, there is a halfway house option, such as that which is used at Reading, Swansea and soon (when Bristol join Bristol City) at Ashton Gate. Probably plenty of others too.

      It is called something like Desso, and is a mixture of real grass and artificial grass, and seems perfectly capable of maintaining Football and Rugby each week, even in the worst weather.

      • Here’s my issue with Sarries artificial pitch which doesn’t get muddy or torn up as easily.

        If Sarries train exclusively on a pitch like that won’t that be a liability when they go abroad and have to play in muddy conditions or on poor quality pitches?

  6. Great article

    As for kicking Italy out, no way, never look back, I think Italy could come good one day and it is nobody’s interest to lose them. I would look at letting Georgia in at some point, at least dangle the carrot, they get great crowds and would benefit from the chance, Russia are not as good but in a few years would defintely make it more interesting economically speaking.

    BP, I am in far more doubt.
    The slam bonus would definitely have to exist in my mind, I am not sure of the stats but does the Bp system really increase the try count, I’m not sure. Another solution to the try count is to hold the tournement in the summer months, the problem being the competition from football campoinships and olympics ect, maybe delay the tournement a bit to April and hope for good weather, problem there being the club champoinships, don’t know to be honest.

  7. I don’t think there’s any sense in moving the 6 nations. Union is a winter code, playing it in summer negates half of the elements of gameplay. It’s also not at all pleasant to play in summer on dryer pitches and it increases the chances of injury.

    All this talk of encouraging more tries, I’m not that sure the bonus point system encourages it so much. Teams that are able to put 4 tries over the opposition will put 4 tries over them whether the incentive is there or not. It’s obviously much more useful in a long format tournament to separate teams that are fairly even, but the short 6N format just isn’t that good for it. You can separate teams by points difference and teams will try and score as much as possible to get that good points difference.

    • Domestic competition spans autumn, winter & spring. I wouldn’t want us to move the competition to the summer, but that doesn’t mean the best place to schedule the annual showpiece is in winter.

      For example do you think the IRB would have said fantastic idea if we suggested staging the RWC in the middle of winter? I don’t think so. Games played in poor conditions on soggy pitches that haven’t seen any sun in 3 months are not generally as high a quality as games played on firm pitches in dry conditions. So they wouldn’t want the flagship scheduled at a time that results in the lowest quality rugby.

      I think with a bit of tweaking to the schedule (e.g. HC QFs before 6N, compress to a 5 week schedule therefore allowing a later start) you could probably start about a month later and be less likely to have the quality of the games impacted by the state of the pitches and really bad conditions.

  8. I think it’s a dangerous assumption that lots of tries=exciting game. There have been plenty of excellent and exciting games that have been decided with a try or even no tries.

    Rescheduling to your suggested time would make it quite congested with the summer internationals and further reduce the rest period required. However, I don’t think that the 6 Nations needs rescheduling any more than it needs bonus points. The only rescheduling I see a need for is to remove the Premiership fixtures from the 6 nations schedule and swap them with LV cup fixtures.

    • I agree high try counts aren’t the be all and end all, plenty of super rugby try fests are not particularly good games.

      What I do like to see however is the best players, in all positions, being able to perform their full repertoire of skills to the best of their abilities. On days where the conditions are really bad (as they were in Dublin) having the ball is a liability, more ball gets kicked away, hardly any ball goes to the tail of the lineout, error counts are high, the ball rarely gets run back, you can’t run as fast so defences have more time, therefore fewer line breaks, etc, etc. It can still be a gripping spectacle, but if the conditions dictate a limited 10 man game then it will be rarely be as good a game as when conditions allow for all 15 players to be involved. So if you started with a blank canvas and wanted to decide where to put the flagship tournament I would schedule it at a time where we will see the highest quality rugby.

      A scheduling tweak to start 4 weeks later, finish 2 weeks later could probably work without 6Ns running into the summer internationals whilst being able to play on better pitches in typically better conditions. Very interested to see how Sarries pitch works out over the next season though, it may be an excellent way forward.

      I don’t mind the current scheduling of the LV cup as it does allow for a couple of points in the season where some of the first team regulars can take a break, we have 8 or 9 international weekends and 6 weeks of LV (including SF and F). If all the LV fixtures were in the 6N period it would mean a pretty long slog for the first team and then a very long break.

      But anyway, the more I type the more I realise Plato was correct “Opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance” so that’s enough of my opinion.

  9. why do we always have to pander to the marketing gurus and the fair weather supporters who are of no real long term value to rugby anyway. What may be feasible at some stage is to reduce the w cup to 16 teams and have a type of qualification system over say a 2 or 3 season basis in the six nations and something similar in the s hem championship as well. Some big teams would miss out as they do in soccer but this would only enhance the world cup over time and make the 6 nations and tri nations interesting every season and add more value to these tournaments than some b p system would .

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