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What would bonus points have changed in past Six Nations Championships?
By Giles Stokes
So the Six Nations is considering using the Bonus Point scheme. Personally I like the idea, I'd like to see more tries and the bonus point system rewards that, but what would the impact be for the tournament overall? I know some people don't want the change - after all the current system works, right? And it's the oldest, best followed tournament so why change it?
For me the place to start is to look at what would have changed if we'd been using a bonus point system in past years. And that's where being an excel geek data analyst helps - I've already got a spread sheet going back to 2000 that does exactly that. Sad I know.
Now I realise that had teams been operating under a bonus point system during those years there might have been some different decisions in any given game, with teams pushing for a fourth try instead of kicking a final penalty to keep themselves clear, so this is all just a complicated 'What if...' but let's have a look anyway.
First of all we can quickly see that over the thirteen competitions since 2000, eight years would see no difference under the bonus point system. So on a general basis the two scoring systems come out mostly in line with each other. But there are some changes.
In both 2000 and 2008 under the current system Italy came sixth and Scotland fifth. Both years each team won a single game.
In 2000 Italy beat Scotland in their very first 6N game and Scotland famously denied England the Grand Slam. So in the current system both picked up two points and points difference edged Scotland ahead.
Had they been using the bonus point system Scotland, would have only got those 4 points, but Italy would have their four from the win over Scotland and also picked up a bonus point for running in four tries against France. So, who deserved not to finish last - Scotland for denying the otherwise dominant England the Grand Slam mainly through the boot, or Italy for having played more entertaining rugby in their loss to France? I can see arguments both ways.
In 2008, Italy again beat Scotland in a close game, the difference being a single drop goal, and Scotland again beat England in a game with all the scoring limited to just penalties. Under the bonus point system Scotland picked up just one BP for their close lose to Italy, while Italy picked up two - for close losses to Ireland in Dublin and England in Rome. Both of those games were among the closest Italy has come to beating either of those teams. So Scotland had one close defeat and Italy had two. I think that is a little more clear-cut as to who deserved to finish higher.
But these two years the only difference is between fifth and sixth - not exactly the business end of the table. What other changes have there been?
In 2009, Ireland got their long-awaited Grand Slam. But with three wins, two losses and six points apiece England, France and Wales have nothing to divide them but points difference, which put England into second, France third, with Wales trailing in fourth the year after their second Grand Slam.
Under the bonus point system England pick up 2 try bonus points (Italy and France) and a losing BP (Ireland), Wales take one from their four tries against Scotland and two losing points (France and Ireland), but France only takes one from their seven tries against Italy.
So while their points difference is six higher than that of Wales, in the games they lost they did so by a bigger margin, losing by 24 and 9, while Wales only lost by 5 and 2, and England by 8 and 1. So under the bonus point system Wales are rewarded for their two close fought matches and leap frog France into third place.
But our last two competitions see an impact right at the top of the table where we really need to take a closer look to fully understand the repercussions of using this system - 2007 and 2002.
Between 2000 and 2007 Ireland had taken 2nd place more often than any other team and never finished worse than 3rd but they had yet to secure a victory.
2007 could have been their year until their third-round loss to France. But after beating England in the third round and England going on to beat France in the fourth round the competition opened up again with all three of those teams able to win in the final weekend. As it is England lost and France and Ireland won in the last round, and France took the championship with a points difference 4 greater than Ireland. But under the bonus point system Ireland would have picked up 2 try bonus points (England and Italy) and 1 losing (France) while France picked up 2 for tries (Italy and Scotland) but failed to pick up a bonus point in their loss to England. So, under the bonus point system Ireland would have secured their first 6N win two years before their eventual Grand Slam in 2009, thanks to a closer game in their single loss that year.
But the year that all the critics of the bonus point system point to as one of the best reasons not to adopt it is 2002 a year with a clear cut Grand Slam victory for France. But under the bonus point system it would be a victory for England - though it would have come down to points difference to secure it.
France managed to secure only a single bonus point from their five games - their five try victory over Ireland in Paris. Meanwhile, England picked up bonus points in every game losing by just five points to France, and scoring try bonus points against every other team. The end result would have been both teams tied on 21 points and England's points difference (48 higher than France's) would mean the bonus point victory over the Grand Slam winners.
This is however a fairly unusual set of circumstances. In every other Grand Slam winning year (03, 04, 05, 08, 09, 10 and 12) the winner of the Grand Slam has also been a clear winner under the bonus point system. So in most cases this wouldn't be a problem.
However, I think everyone is in agreement that the Grand Slam must take precedence, so a mechanism does need to be found to manage this situation should it recur.
There are two mechanisms that could be used to compensate for this pretty unusual circumstance. The first is the simplest - all involved simply agree that the Grand Slam takes precedence and points are only used to separate any teams that haven't won all five of their games.
The other mechanism would be to award additional Bonus Points for the Grand Slam, meaning that any winner of the Grand Slam would be taken out of the possible range of any 2nd place team.
So what's the worst-case scenario for this to come about? The winning team would have to get five victories without any bonus points for a total of 20 points. Meanwhile the 2nd place team takes four bonus point victories for 20 points plus picks up two bonus points against the winning team (scoring four tries and losing by less than seven... despite the fact that the winner didn't manage to score four tries... an odd result but certainly achievable) for a total of 22 points.
In that case awarding three bonus points for the Grand Slam pushes the winner of the Grand Slam clear of where any 2nd place team could get.
So overall what can we conclude?
More often than not the bonus point system has played no difference in the results of the 6Ns played to date. In the five competitions where there has been a difference three of them have not had an effect on the overall winner, just in where other teams have placed. So in only two out of thirteen competitions would it have had an impact on the winner.
In 2002 this would have been wrong, but there are simple solutions to that unusual situation that can be brought in. But in 2007 in would have changed the result.
We must each decide for ourselves whether we feel that change would have been a fairer reflection of the competition - a discussion I imagine may take partisan lines.