Fraser Brown: Bonus points can skew Six Nations but they reward attacking rugby over longer season and that's how it should be

Expansive tactics paying off in Europe’s big three big leagues

Europe’s three big leagues have their own idiosyncrasies but one thing that links them this year is how tight they all are. We’re now in the final stages of the regular season and it’s the first time that I can remember a proper race to get into the play-off positions in all three.

The United Rugby Championship is especially competitive, although it has developed into almost a two-tier situation. Glasgow Warriors, Leinster, Munster and the Bulls are in a battle for the top four positions, and then there’s the scrap for the final four play-off places which involves the teams from fifth right down to the Ospreys in 11th.

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It’s brilliant because normally you get to three or four weeks before the end of the season and you know Leinster are going to finish top and there might only be a couple of play-off places that remain undecided. This year everyone is taking points off everyone and that will continue over the final two rounds.

Glasgow Warriors' Sione Tuipulotu competes with Willie Le Roux of the Vodacom Bulls during the BKT United Rugby Championship at Loftus Versfeld which saw Glasgow pick up two bonus points.  (Photo by SteveHaagSports/INPHO/Shutterstock)Glasgow Warriors' Sione Tuipulotu competes with Willie Le Roux of the Vodacom Bulls during the BKT United Rugby Championship at Loftus Versfeld which saw Glasgow pick up two bonus points.  (Photo by SteveHaagSports/INPHO/Shutterstock)
Glasgow Warriors' Sione Tuipulotu competes with Willie Le Roux of the Vodacom Bulls during the BKT United Rugby Championship at Loftus Versfeld which saw Glasgow pick up two bonus points. (Photo by SteveHaagSports/INPHO/Shutterstock)

This weekend is the penultimate round of the URC and Edinburgh have a huge game at home to Munster on Friday while Glasgow play their second game in South Africa, against the Lions, the following day.

In England, it’s the final weekend of the Gallagher Premiership and all the games are kicking off simultaneously on Saturday at 3.05pm. That’s something that the URC might want to look at in the future because its final round is split over two days with staggered kick-offs.

It’s a little more difficult for the URC because it’s cross-continent but it would be brilliant if everything on the last day kicked off at three o’clock and there was proper jeopardy. What you don’t want is to get to the last two games on the Saturday and everything has already been decided. Hopefully, that won’t be the case this season because it’s so tight.

The URC gets criticised a lot, mainly by Welsh rugby fans, but it’s the most exciting league in terms of what could happen over the final two weekends. It’s good that the Premiership regular season concludes this weekend and the URC doesn’t finish until a couple of weeks later because that way the URC gets its own spotlight.

Don’t get me wrong, the Premiership has been great as well. Only the top four go through to the play-offs, and Northampton Saints are home and hosed and guaranteed a home semi-final. They play third-placed Bath in their final league game on Saturday and I’d expect Finn Russell’s team to join them in the play-offs.

There’s also a massive game at the Stonex where second-placed Saracens take on fourth-placed Sale Sharks. Sale are only two points clear of Exeter Chiefs and Harlequins who are waiting to pounce. Exeter have got Leicester away while Quins host Bristol Bears who are only a point behind them and still in with a shout.

I think Sarries will win and I don’t think Bath will drop out of the top four so really it’s Sale, Exeter and Quins going for the one remaining play-off spot.

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The French league is ridiculous because you have to play 26 games before you get to the play-offs. The top two, who at the moment are Toulouse and Stade Francais with three rounds remaining, qualify automatically for the semi-finals. The teams who finish between third and sixth go into the ‘barrage’ which is basically the quarter-finals.

It means that to win the Top 14 you’ve got to play 28 or 29 club games which is gruelling and quite a contrast with the URC and the Gallagher Premiership where the regular season comprises 18 matches.

When you look across all three leagues it’s the bonus points that make the difference. There has been debate about the merits of bonus points, particularly around the Six Nations. My view is that in a shortened format like the Six Nations they can skew the table but in the long format of a nine-month season it rewards the better teams.

Look at Glasgow at the weekend: they got two bonus points against the Bulls almost from nowhere thanks to that stunning comeback. Now, if you’d said beforehand that Glasgow were going to pick up two points at altitude at Loftus Versfeld I think every single Glasgow fan - and member of staff, probably - would accept that as a pretty good result.

The better squads are able to pick up bonus points. During the Six Nations period, when clubs have to play games without many of their first choice players, the better teams were still picking up four-try bonus points or losing bonus points because they are well coached, well structured and understand what they are doing.

The best teams in the URC - Glasgow, Leinster, Munster, the Bulls and the Stormers - have picked up double figures bonus points.

And if you look at the Premiership, it’s Saints, Sarries, Bath, Exeter and Quins, all the better teams, who are in double figures for bonus points. The less expansive teams, the ones with the poorer attack, are the ones struggling to pick up bonus points. It’s the same in the URC. Edinburgh, Benetton, Connacht, Ospreys and the Sharks, the teams that have a more rigid, restricted game-plan and are less attack-minded and less skilful, are all struggling to pick up four-try bonus points because they can’t break teams down.

It can lead to situations like Edinburgh’s where they have won more games than two of the teams above them - Ulster and the Stormers - but over the course of a long season the bonus point system is favouring the attacking teams and that chimes with rugby’s attempts to make the game more attractive.

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Along with the recently announced law changes, the aim is to encourage more ball-in-play time, more adventurous tactics which should attract more supporters and help generate more money through bigger crowds and increased TV revenue.

Let’s be honest, a low-scoring slugfest is not going to make for an entertaining product. People wouldn’t be tuning into Sky Sports to watch Premier League football if the games were finishing 1-0 or 0-0. Punters want to see attacking football and they want to see attacking rugby, too, and that’s where World Rugby is trying to get to.

The teams that are willing to play expansive rugby and have higher skill-sets are sitting at the top across all the leagues and I think that’s really positive for the entire European game.

If you look at the Top 14, it’s Toulouse who are at the summit and they are the ultimate entertainers. La Rochelle have had a poor season given their recent high standards but they’re hanging in there in sixth place and that’s down to the style of rugby they are playing. The bonus point system in France is different - you don’t get one for four tries, you get it for finishing three tries clear - but it still encourages teams on both sides to play up until the 80th minute. You are either striving to win the bonus point or trying to stop a team from winning one.

So what we’re seeing across Europe is that the better coached teams and the ones who are prepared to take risks are rising to the top.

I think the play-off system has been good for rugby and Sione Tuipulotu summed it up really well on the BBC podcast the other day. There are the nuts and bolts of your job which is the league campaign and it does become a bit of a grind but that’s the nature of it, and it’s a mental challenge as much as a physical one. Then you get to the end of the season and you switch to cup mode and that’s the chance to win silverware and be rewarded for all the hard work you’ve put in across the campaign.

But you have to change your mindset, you have to reset. Everything you’ve done across the week-to-week grind doesn’t matter. It’s now a cup competition and it’s about turning up on the day and producing for 80 minutes.

I love that because it trains two different sides of your mentality as a squad and as an individual. We saw it last year with Glasgow. Munster were nowhere and then they turn up at Scotstoun for the play-off quarter-final and grind out a really gritty victory, and then go on to beat Leinster away in the semis and the Stormers in Cape Town in the final and ended up champions.

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You need a different psyche for the play-offs and I think this could be really helpful from a Scottish point of view. Something that gets levelled at us a lot is that Scottish players and Scottish teams have not been able to produce consistently in those big pressure environments. But the more play-off rugby our players are exposed to, the stronger mentally they will become.



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