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!