Sunday 11 December 2016

Six Nations is right to resist the appeal of bonus point system

Mick Cleary

Published 26/01/2016 | 09:50

Grand Slams are all well and good, but it's the trophy that matters Photo: AFP
Grand Slams are all well and good, but it's the trophy that matters Photo: AFP

The Six Nations Championship has no need of bonus points. Not even when you factor in that the last day of action in the European Champions Cup on Sunday was shaped to dramatic effect by such a system.

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Not even when you consider that the annual tournament is the only rugby competition of note in the world to resist the appeal of incentivising try-scoring as well as doggedness in a losing cause with a defensive bonus point system.

The Rugby World Cup has it, the Aviva Premiership, Pro 12, Super Rugby, Top 14, albeit with slight modifications as to how many tries need to be scored to gain the additional point. It is a contrivance, an artificial way of engendering excitement.

The Six Nations is right to be out of step with the rest. It has nothing to do with pomposity or fusty short-sightedness and everything to do with fairness. It is a five‑round tournament, with an imbalance of home fixtures to away games. This season England have three games on the road, in Edinburgh, Rome and Paris. Next season, that roster is flipped. Teams perform better at home. Three home games is enough of an advantage.

There are other issues that affect outcomes – the weather. Edinburgh in early February is less hospitable than Rome in mid‑March (albeit it has snowed on England’s past two visits to the Italian capital). The 2015 Rugby World Cup produced marvellous rugby, from start to finish. And one reason was that conditions were equitable across the tournament. Surfaces were true, the weather was benign and teams could plan their strategy accordingly.

There is only one way to play if it is peeing down and blowing a gale. Winning by any means possible is all that matters on such days. And riveting fare it can be, too. You do not necessarily need tries for enjoyment. Super Rugby, the tournament that spawned bonus points, is essentially a late-summer event. It was created by broadcasters with a view to attracting TV viewers weaned on all-running rugby league.

Its imperatives are different to those of the Six Nations, a tournament deeply embedded in the psyche of rugby followers in these parts, cherished for what it is and not what it needs to be to pay facile lip service to some sort of specious entertainment agenda.

The tournament already has an inbuilt competitive inducement – that of points difference. Who can forget the final day of action in the 2015 Championship, a try-fest, with three teams tilting for the title, 27 tries scored in the three matches, 221 points shared, and Ireland edging home for the title by virtue of a six-point differential across the seven weeks of action? It was taut, engaging, edge-of-seat stuff, although compromised to some extent by the fact that the games kicked off at different times.

But here is the final nail for adopting a bonus-point system. It would potentially undermine one of the most sought-after accolades in European rugby, that of the Grand Slam. Ireland have only managed to get their hands on the mythical bauble twice in 121 editions of the tournament.

If there were to be a bonus-point system, then it is feasible that a team could beat all five opponents and yet not win the title. That would have been the case in 2002 when France won the Slam (five wins for statutory 10 points) yet would have picked up only one bonus point along the way, for their 49-5 win against Ireland. England finished runners-up with eight points from four wins but scored heavily against Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Italy for what would have been four attacking bonus points and, together with a losing bonus point for the 20-15 defeat against France, a total of 13 points. It would have a travesty for them to have claimed the title. Simple as that. Bonus points are for others, not for the Six Nations Championship.

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