This week we'll be concerning ourselves with Six Nations bonus points & the Heineken Cup.
This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with bonus points and the Heineken Cup…
Bonus points for the Six Nations?! It's the end of civilisation isn't it?
We're not entirely sure why it should be. A look down the last ten tournaments shows that bonus points or not, barely a jot of difference would have been made to the standings.
Of course, the bonus points would have had an effect on the mindset of some teams and maybe you'd have had more attacking line-outs instead of penalty kicks at times. So results could have been different.
But it's the nature of what is there to win that differentiates the Six Nations from its southern hemisphere counterpart.
The Rugby Championship is played home and away for starters. So you can argue that, in terms of the overall standings, you are looking at making a minimum of making a net gain in championship points from fixtures. The All Blacks might argue that coming away from South Africa with a losing bonus point is not a bad result if they can deny the Boks the same back home. The rule of thumb is that you have to win your home games – we all know how much of a difference home ground advantage can bestow.
That's not a factor in Europe, where the one-off fixtures mean some teams have significantly tougher schedules than others, not least because some will play at home three times, some only twice. Just looking at this year: Ireland and Wales host two of their three harder games at home, while England and France have to travel twice out of the three. It's already a slightly skewed schedule by nature, awarding bonus points would skew it even more.
Of the games against Italy and Scotland, matches which coaches of the other four would surely think would be possible to get a try bonus point from, England host both of them at home, while the other three would have to travel at least once – travelling to Italy is significantly harder then hosting them. Ask France.
Then there's the nature of what's up for grabs. Even the possibility of a team winning the championship by pipping the Grand Slam winners on bonus points devalues the prize. Suffer no illusions: it is the Grand Slam which is cherished above all other prizes on offer. The same goes for the Triple Crown, even more susceptible to having its winner finish behind one of the vanquished teams.
It's understandable that try bonus points are being debated. After all, Wales won their Grand Slam last year despite scoring three tries fewer than third-placed Ireland. England, who ironically are said to be the most vociferous supporters of the bonus point proposal, finished above Ireland despite scoring fewer than half of Ireland's 13 tries. Clearly a way of encouraging teams to open up might need to be found.
But using the bonus point system goes too far. There's no long season to catch up, no return matches to redress the schedule strength imbalance, too much opportunity for the competition table to be flawed because of the schedule and, need we remind, the generally miserable February/March weather.
What would be the best compromise in our view is to change the way things are decided. At the moment, points difference separates tied teams in the table: why not separate tied teams on tries scored? And if that is equal, try difference? Reward attack and defence through the course of the tournament, not just per game.
That way winners stay winners, Grand Slams and Triple Crowns remain untouchable, but sides who have attacked well throughout the tournament are ultimately rewarded if they can't quite reach their zenith. Maybe on the climactic day you get a scenario where teams need to win by a certain margin of tries rather than points.
Imagine the final day. Wales, who have managed few tries in the tournament, need to beat England for a Grand Slam. But if they lose and England win, Ireland could still take the championship spoils by scoring three tries more than England in Italy, so England need to score tries as well as win. France could also do it, although they need to score five tries more than England and two more than Ireland. At the bottom, whoever scores the most tries between Scotland and Italy avoids the Wooden Spoon.
A fiendishly Heineken Cup-style mathematical scenario. But better than one in which the same Wales team does beat England for a Grand Slam, then finds that England's superior bonus point tally sees the English crowned Six Nations champions.
While this season's tournament, after a damp start, is bubbling up like water in a weary kettle, uncertainty continues to simmer over Europe's showpiece tournament's future.
The next round of talks is set for February 6, where the French and English are unlikely to waver from their line that proportional representation, and thus revenue distribution, from and for the three European leagues should be the norm, while nor are the PRO12 countries going to accept a competition format where we could in all probability see a Heineken Cup without Scottish or Italian representation or where the four countries involved are sharing a third of the revenue between them while England and France reap a third.
We're trying and trying, but we can't see a way out of this one. You take away Heineken Cup representation from those countries and you cut off a huge source of revenue and player incentive for them. In times such as these, no sponsorship deal for Europe's second tier is going to yield enough money to ensure that Scotland or Italy keep their international players playing locally – nor, for that matter, the cash-strapped Welsh. It's a death knell. But we can see why England and France feel aggrieved about the current situation – especially given their teams' strength in this year's edition. We can understand why heels are being dug in.
It would be easier in healthy economic times, but with cash so scarce the economic reality is that you are dealing with the national economic mights of England and France, up against Irish and Italian economies in turmoil and miniscule local economies in Scotland and Wales. You can have all the national pride you want, but only in England and France are sponsors able to back that up with 'proper' money.
Hopefully a solution will be found. It's the stuff of dreams, but one colleague said to me the other day: “You know, way back during the first revenue disputes, I was hoping we'd wind up with a 18-team 2-division, salary-capped, pan-European league, complete with promotion and relegation and with all the clubs or franchises getting the same league revenues and prizes based on their own successes.”
If only it were that simple now.
Loose Pass compiled by Richard Anderson