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