If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. For some reason, which escapes me, the Six Nations committee has chosen to ignore the old adage and re-jigged the tournament by introducing bonus points. Yet nobody could say the thing is “broke”. Quite the contrary. Grounds are almost always full, despite the high cost of tickets. The television audience is huge. Interest is high.
The ostensible reason for the change is to encourage attacking rugby by making the scoring of tries more profitable. Curious thinking here. When did you last see a Six Nations side that wasn’t at least trying to score tries? If any fail to do so, it’s skill, not will, that is lacking.
There’s something more influential than the availability or otherwise of bonus point in determining the sort of match you see, and that’s the weather. Give any Six Nations side a calm day and a dry ball and they will look to try to play a handling game. Give it cold, wet and windy conditions and you will get almost always a different style of play. We have had bonus points in the Guinness Pro12 for years now, but on a wet Friday evening in Llanelli or Glasgow, you aren’t likely to see much champagne rugby; it’s the same if a gale from the Atlantic is howling over the Sportsground in Galway.
Recognising that weather influences performance, some think it might be better to move the Six Nations forward a few weeks, so that matches are played in March and April, not February. There’s something to be said for that, though the vagaries of our climate mean that nothing is certain. One has known benign weather in February and vile days later in the season. In 2000, Scotland beat England 19-13 in the Calcutta Cup on a day of a bitterly cold wind and torrential rain, sometimes sleet. In the second half, there were deep pools of water on the pitch. Andy Nicol was visibly trembling with cold and looked like a drookit rat as he collected the Cup. The match was played on the second of April.
Of course, we all like to see tries scored, especially tries that come from adventurous play. But tries are not everything. Try-fests can be very boring if tries seem to be scored too easily thanks to a permissive defence. On the other hand, there have been great and compelling games with very few tries. When Scotland beat England 13-7 in the 1990 Grand Slam decider, I doubt if anyone left Murrayfield muttering “boring, only two tries scored”.
There is even the possibility that the chance to get a bonus point for scoring four tries may lead to more boring rugby: more attempts to win a penalty from the set scrum so that you can kick the ball to the corner and drive a maul over the try-line from a five-metre line-out.
Nothing very spectacular there. Of course, many love that sort of power play, but I doubt if a plethora of tries from a maul is what the administrators hope to encourage by introducing bonus points. Yet it’s what they are quite likely to get – as we have seen in the European Cups. I can, however, see one merit in the change. It gets rid of the points differential as the way of determining position in the table when two sides have the same number of points from wins and draws.
The points differential is unsatisfactory because it rewards a strong side that has absolutely slaughtered a weak one, as, for example, England have more than once run up a huge score against Italy.
Actually, I doubt if the change – unnecessary as I think it – will make any great difference. In general, teams are usually ready to attack when and how they can, and defend when they must. There’s no reason to think that losing teams will suddenly be inspired to keep attempting to score in the hope of getting a losing bonus point. It’s usual, after all, to see beaten teams rally and score what are called “consolation tries” in the last minutes of a match. In any case, I repeat that weather conditions have more influence than anything else on the way in which any particular match is played.
The system of bonus points works quite satisfactorily in most rugby leagues and competitions now. So I doubt if its introduction will materially change the nature of the Six Nations. Yet, apart from innate conservatism and the belief that if something ain’t broke, fixing it is unnecessary, I think my real objection is to the idea that the game is necessarily better if it “delivers more tries”, as the Six Nations chief executive John Feehan puts it.
Sometimes yes, sometimes no. I find, for example, quite a lot of Super Rugby matches unsatisfying because, though lots of tries are scored, they are often made possible by a porous defence and weak tackling. Yet committed defence can be as thrilling and exhilarating as any attack.