Bonus Points and the Six Nations

The Six Nations tournament is finally going to trial the bonus point system, as used in the English Premiership, with a slight tweak to ensure that Grand Slam winners can’t lose out to a second place team.

The bonus point system, introduced for the 2003 Rugby World Cup and used throughout international and club competitions around the world ever since, was devised to reward attacking play, encouraging teams to win games through the scoring of tries rather than through kicking drop goals or penalties.

Over the course of a 22-game season, the number of bonus points can have a significant effect on the outcome of the competition, and having been to premiership games where the result is all but assured, it’s fantastic to watch teams still pushing towards the end of the game, and sometimes after the clock has run out, to bundle the ball over the goal line to score the all-important bonus point try.

The notable exception to the international competitions that use it has been, of course, the Six Nations. Throughout the years, there have been many calls for the Six Nations to implement the bonus point system, but those who argue against the system point to evidence that suggests it would have had little to no effect on the tables from previous seasons.

This is a bit of a moot argument since, if applied retrospectively, you’re awarding bonus points based on games that were not influenced by bonus points. There is no way to know whether the bonus point system would have affected previous tournaments based on the results of games that were played under rules that didn’t promote attacking play.

So, thankfully, as announced earlier today, the 2017 Six Nations will finally introduce the bonus point system, across all three championships (The RBS 6 Nations, The Women’s Six Nations and the U20s Six Nations), with a slight tweak to ensure that those who win the grand slam can’t end up losing the tournament.

Grand slam winners, tournament losers?

It’s worth pointing out that the nay-sayers had one thing right: the bonus point system would mean that a team could, theoretically, win the grand slam, but fail to win the tournament.

If the rules, as used in the 2015 Rugby Union World Cup and the Aviva Premiership, were applied as-is, then they’d be absolutely right. Those rules, for those of you not au-fait with Rugby Union, are that teams receive:

  • 4 match points for a win
  • 2 match points for a draw
  • 1 bonus match point for scoring four tries or more
  • 1 bonus match point for losing by a margin of 7 points or fewer

Additionally, teams can only score a maximum of 5 match points.

So suppose, for example, that England were, once again, to win all of their games in the tournament, but only by scoring three tries in each game and winning the games through points from drop-goals or penalties, or where their opponents failed to convert tries. This would give them the grand slam with a total of 20 points, the maximum number they could achieve without the bonus point. (That’s 4 points from each of the 5 games.)

Let’s also suppose, for example, that Wales were to win all of their games except the one against England but, crucially, score four tries in each of their games and lose to England by a margin of 3 points. This would give them a total of 22 points, the maximum number they could achieve, with their bonus points. (That’s 4 points from each of the four games they win, plus 5 bonus points from each of their 5 games.)

The solution the Six Nations Council has come up with, which I wholeheartedly agree with, is really, really simple: award 3 additional bonus match points to the team that wins the grand slam. That way, in the exact same scenario above, England would still win the Championship and the Grand Slam with 23 points.

Home and Away

There are also those who suggest that the five-fixture format means that there is always an imbalance of home and away fixtures. For the 2017 campaign, England and Scotland will both have three home fixtures, while Ireland and Wales will have just two. In 2018 (if no new teams are introduced), that reverses.

Once again, there’s a solution to be had here too, though a somewhat more controversial one, that would involve increasing the number of teams in the championship to seven. Right now, if you had to pick a union to include, it would almost certainly be Georgia or Romania.

Relegation to and promotion from the Rugby European International Championships is something that could also be considered, though it’s a tough subject to approach. Expanding the format to seven teams would almost certainly require this, but it would almost certainly mean that the likes of Italy and Georgia would be battling it out each year to avoid the drop back into the lower tiers.

Exciting times ahead

Adding the bonus points system to the Six Nations is hopefully going to inject a sense of urgency into the games, to make sure that they’re as exciting as they can be. Adding more teams, introducing promotion and relegation and, ultimately, opening the game up and exposing rugby union to more countries around the world is surely a good thing.

If you fancy going to a game sometime, let me know!

Missing the Six Nations?

If you’ve enjoyed watching the rugby over the last seven weeks, there’s a hell of a season finale shaping up in the Aviva Premiership that you might enjoy.

For the longest time, I’ve enjoyed watching the Six Nations, and this year has been no different (especially with England wrapping up the grand slam), but it’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve really got into watching Rugby Union at club level. It’s not like I’ve had a real excuse – Franklin’s Gardens, home of Northampton Saints, and Welford Road, home of Leicester Tigers, are almost exactly the same distance from my front door.

But, it’s hard for me to feel any affinity for any team that’s based over 30 miles away from home. That’s why it took until 2014, when Wasps announced their intention to move to the Ricoh Arena, just a few miles up the A46, for me to really start paying attention to the Aviva Premiership. Since then, I’ve attended matches, with friends and with the entire family sometimes (silly not to, when tickets for kids are free), and I’m giving serious thought to becoming a season ticket holder for the 2016/17 season.

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As a Wasps fan, the top of the table is very exciting and heating up nicely – I’ll visit the subject of the top half of the table properly in the next couple of weeks – but this weekend’s results have made the bottom of the table very interesting. With five rounds remaining, there’s a maximum of 25 points available to the teams in the bottom three, though given their places in the table, the only bonus points they’re likely to secure are the ones you get for losing within 7 points.

Right now, mathematically, any team that wants to play Premiership Rugby next season needs 37 points though, realistically, 33 should be enough to secure a place in English rugby’s top-flight. London Irish, Newcastle Falcons and Worcester Warriors are, therefore, fighting for survival.

Bath Rugby

Remember those 33 points I was talking about? Bath have just that many, and while they’re not yet assured of mathematical safety, they do have the advantage of a game in hand – their 9th round match against Sale was postponed so that their Champions Cup fixture against Toulon could take place earlier in January this year.

Bath’s 150th year will certainly be one they’ll want to forget. A lucky escape last weekend gave them four points when a tired-looking Mike Delany failed to score from two drop goal attempts. A single victory from their next six games, or a loss for any team below them, is all they need to secure their place in the Premiership next season.

Worcester Warriors

Another team whose safety is almost certainly assured, Worcester have 30 points and will be glad that the two teams below them in the table have a head-to-head before the season comes to a close. They’ll be breathing a sigh of relief, given that they have fixtures against all four of the teams at the top of the table in their final five.

Winning four from their last five games will give Worcester some confidence going into their next match, given that Irish will need to score as many points as possible from their remaining fixtures. After that, however, it’s going to be pretty tough for Worcester to get many points in any of their last four games.

Thankfully, for Warriors fans, the real fight for survival is between Falcons and the Exiles.

Newcastle Falcons

Unfortunately for Falcons, their remaining fixtures make for sobering reading, especially on the back of their most recent loss, stemming from two agonising missed drop-goals against Bath.

  • Wasps (home)
    Despite only narrowly beating Newcastle back in February, Wasps’ relentless dominance will be hard for Falcons to resist. Yes, I’m a Wasps supporter, but I don’t think anyone’s realistically expecting the Falcons to get any points from this fixture.
  • Harlequins (away)
    Assuming a loss to Wasps, Falcons will go into this with five defeats on the bounce, against a Quins team that have won just one in their last four games, albeit with a home advantage. Taking four points is not impossible for the Falcons here.
  • London Irish (home)
    For Newcastle, having the home advantage in this match is huge, as it’s potentially the game that will decide which team stays in the Aviva Premiership next season.
  • Saracens (away)
    Falcons will have a tough job with this fixture, and taking even a losing bonus point home from this fixture seems highly unlikely.
  • Sale Sharks (home)
    If the relegation hasn’t been decided before this game, the Falcons might have the edge, given London Irish will be facing a Wasps side looking to confirm their place in the playoffs.

Falcons go into the final five games with a 5 point advantage over the Exiles, which might just prove to be crucial.

London Irish

The Exiles have a real fight on their hands, but they also have a set of fixtures featuring games that they can realistically win.

  • Worcester (away)
    The Exiles showed that they can play good rugby – their fixture against Saracens a couple of weeks ago in New Jersey was only really lost in the last 10 minutes – and the fixture is much more important for London Irish than it is for the Warriors, so there’s no reason why they couldn’t take four points from this fixture.
  • Sale Sharks (home)
    A tough one to call, but with the home advantage, the Exiles could use this match to turn up the heat on the Falcons ahead of the game that will play a crucial role in deciding their fate. Again, it wouldn’t be impossible for Irish to get four crucial points.
  • Newcastle Falcons (away)
    This is the most important game for London Irish, given their following fixtures. If they lose this match and Falcons are ahead on points, this could be the end of the Exiles’ tenure in the top flight of English rugby.
  • Harlequins (home)
    Depending on the results of previous games, Irish would need to pull out all the stops at this game. Even then, it might not be enough, after the drubbing they received at the Stoop in December, when Quins beat them by 31 points.
  • Wasps (away)
    If their current form continues to the end of the season – and I’m very much hoping that it does, as I will be there cheering them on – then Wasps could be looking to make this their penultimate game of the season by securing a home playoff spot.

Despite the challenging fixtures, I don’t think Warriors have much more to worry about than finishing 10th this season, but their safety will be mathematically assured if either the Falcons or the Exiles fail to score four points in just one of their matches – a statistical certainty, given their impending head-to-head – and while it’s a shame that their safety will come from the Falcons and the Exiles losing games rather than them taking a haul of points over the coming weeks, Warriors fans everywhere will be thankful that their stay in the premiership isn’t going to be a single-season affair

As for the relegation battle? If you’re a Falcons fan, you have my condolences, because I think your team has the toughest battle on their hands.

Whatever happens, the last few weeks are going to make for some very interesting watching. If you enjoyed the Six Nations, there’s never been a better time to dip your toe into the club competition.