Saturday 21st March 2015. This day, “Super Saturday”, was arguably the most entertaining chapter in Six Nations history, featuring a record-breaking 221 points scored, a best-ever 27 tries, and a massive 55-35 victory for England against France. An unprecedented number of people tuned in to watch the action on TV.
The spectacular nature of the final day was widely praised, but we should contrast it with what was a pretty average tournament before that point. In the first four rounds of matches, just 35 tries were scored.
The spectacular nature of the final day was widely praised
This was not an anomaly. For many years, there has been an ever-increasing trend in international rugby towards low-scoring, kicking-based, defence-dominated displays. In the 2013 Six Nations, the competitors only scored 37 tries, the lowest total since the game went professional in 1995. Moreover, Wales registered the lowest number of tries by a Champion – nine – when they won the Six Nations two years ago, only to be lowered further by Ireland, this year’s Champions, who scored just eight.
Commenting after the third round of fixtures in 2015, All-Blacks coach Steven Hansen highlighted his worry that rugby was becoming a tedious affair. “Rugby at the moment is all geared to defences doing stuff that inhibits the attacking game”, he remarked in an interview with The Mirror. “There are some things as a sport we have to address, otherwise our game will become a negative sport, rather than a positive one.”
One possible reason behind this growing negativity, at least in the Six Nations, could be the absence of a Bonus Point system. The Six Nations is the only major rugby tournament in the world that does not use this system.
The introduction of Bonus Points has been flirted with a number of times. Discussions on the subject were held in 2005 and John Feehan, the Six Nations Chief Executive, also drew up two consultation papers for Unions to consider in 2013.
The normal Bonus Point system works by awarding four points for a win, and two points for a draw. One bonus point is awarded to a team that scores four tries (or more) in a match, and one bonus point is given to a team that loses a match by seven or fewer points. No team is able to get more than five points from one match.
But would this system actually have a big impact on improving the entertainment value of the Six Nations? Super Saturday provides evidence to suggest that the teams do not lack the quality to be free-running, adventurous and attack-minded – the key reason for this sudden change in mentality being the incentive of the Championship title.
The Bonus Point system is a way to provide this kind of incentive in every match, not just on the last day. The temptation of a four-try bonus point could provide winning teams with significant motivation to step further onto the gas, and the bonus point awarded to narrow losers would encourage losing teams to keep going until the final whistle.
This would encourage “ball through hands” play in every week of the Six Nations, rather teams instead simply trying to kick their way to victory. However, others argue that, due to the history and success of the tournament, this change is simply not necessary, and that adding this extra system could create confusion among casual viewers.
Regardless, any move to this Bonus Point system would have to be unanimously agreed among all Unions, which would be problematic due to France’s stated opposition. Their argument, and the primary argument against a Bonus Point system, would be that it would make it possible for a team to win the Grand Slam – i.e. win all of their matches – but not the Championship. They argue that this would be unfair, because they see the Grand Slam as a ‘holy grail’.
Indeed, this scenario would have transpired in 2002 if the Bonus Point system had been in effect. France won the Grand Slam, but England were rampant in their victories. England would have won a bonus point from every game – including their narrow 20-15 defeat to France in Paris – while France would only have earned one, against Ireland. Both teams would have finished with 21 points and, if points-difference were taken as the deciding criterion, England’s total of +131 would have won them the trophy.
However, if teams’ head-to-head record were instead used as the tiebreaker, then France would have nonetheless been crowned Champions. This highlights the importance of the tiebreak criteria that combine with any Bonus Point introduction. Alternatively, a ‘Grand Slam’ bonus could be added to the Six Nations to prevent this from happening.
Moreover, in 2013, 10 bonus points would have been awarded had the system been established. However, only four would’ve been given on the “four-try” basis – the other six would have been awarded for tight results. This casts doubt on whether Bonus Points would really improve the contests.
In 2013, 10 bonus points would have been given on the ‘four-try’ basis
The traditionalists do not want change, but change is inevitable. It must be remembered that the introduction of using points difference as a tiebreaker is also relatively recent – in the amateur era, the trophy was shared if there was no clear winner. Rugby is won in various ways, but a Bonus Point system could provide invaluable entertainment value for the Six Nations. It is time that history and tradition are prevented from holding discussions back, and it is time for this issue to be seriously considered – rather than just debated in the press.