Rugby Championship: Do We Need Bonus Points?

After considering the Springboks narrowly avoiding scoring 4 tries against Argentina and the context it has in the Rugby Championship, one has to ask a question: do we need bonus points?

I’m not just talking about South Africa and how they will fare in the tournament this year. I’m talking about the actual existence of the bonus point scoring system in the tournament itself. Do we need bonus points in the tournament?

Starting with an idealist argument, one has to ask whether the respect and sanctity of test matches is upheld when teams start thinking about goals other than winning the match in order to gallivant around for some bonus points.

I’d hasten to say that it’s not. I don’t consider teams being content with losing sometimes (as long as it was close) to be in the spirit of test rugby. The same goes for being unsatisfied with not getting 4 tries even though you beat the opposition (how much of a ‘test’ is it if only a hiding will do?).

If this point of view is seen to be overly romantic, then let’s analyse the advent of bonus points statistically in test match rugby.

In all 16 years of the tournament previously known as the Tri-Nations, bonus points didn’t make a difference to the overall standings once (meaning that if you removed all the bonus points achieved, the positions of all the teams on the log would be identical every year).

That’s right, it never made a difference. Ever.

One of the arguments in support of having a bonus point system is that it adds something else to separate teams that would ordinarily finish on level on points without immediately resorting to the tried and trusted custom of separating them by their points differences.

If you exclude the bonus points from all the previous logs in Tri-Nations history, you’ll notice that there are only a handful of instances where teams would have ended up level on points and only twice when it comes to determining first place (which is the only thing that matters, right? I’m sure plenty of you will be able to recite all the years South Africa have won the tournament offhand, but I doubt many of your memories can distinguish all the specific years when we finished second as opposed to last).

If you use points difference as a point of separation for all these instances, the log positions end up being identical. On a general level, this is not a reason for surprise. After all, if one team got the same amount of wins as another team but more bonus points, it’s because they would have either scored 4 tries in a game more (thereby probably having a greater increase of points difference) or would have lost within 7 points more (thereby probably having a lesser decrease of points difference).

So if bonus points have never affected the outcome of this international tournament, why are they there at all? More importantly, should we be at all concerned if the team we support fails to get an ‘expected’ bonus point along the way?

Yes it’s a different tournament this year that has an extra team in it and yes it’s a team that might get the odd hiding this year, but is that really going to make a difference to the lack of importance of bonus points?

If your goal is to top the log, your primary aim should be to win more games than the other teams and not the added extras you get (just look at the Stormers and their lack of bonus points, where this year’s Super Rugby tournament is another example where removing the bonus points from every team made zero difference to the overall standings). Bonus points should be treated as just that: a bonus.

Bearing in mind that each team only plays 6 games each. For the vast majority of games at this level, a team can only get 1 bonus point per game (instances where teams have lost a test match within 7 points having scored 4 tries are very rare, especially among the higher-ranked teams). If that’s the case, is a 6-game tournament long enough for bonus points to really be considered a catch-up mechanism for the 4 points accrued for the win?

If you think Argentina will live up to a few people’s (lack of) expectations and become the whipping boys of this year’s tournament, and you think that will give more importance to bonus points for the other sides, it might be relevant to look at the Six Nations championship, and how determining the winner has been affected since it changed from being the Five Nations upon the introduction of Italy (if Argentina are to be somewhat cruelly considered as whipping boys, the same title must be given to Italy).

The Six Nations is a tournament where each team plays almost the same amount of games as teams in the Rugby Championship (5 games as opposed to 6), but it doesn’t have a bonus point system (it’s 2 points for a win, 1 for a draw with points difference the decider when teams finish level). If one were to go through the tournaments held since 2000 (the year of Italy’s inclusion), do the opposite of the above experiment and put the same scoring system as SANZAR uses for their showpiece (4 points for a win with bonus points), one sees that it would hardly change the history of the tournament either.

In the 13 Six Nations tournament’s in question, there are two instances where there would have been a different winner had the bonus point system been used (France would have lost out in 2007 by 1 point to Ireland and by points difference to England in 2002). However, when you look through the matches of the tournament, it’s safe to assume France would have made very small adjustments to their tactics in certain games in order to get 1 more log point and avoid finishing 2nd.

For those of you that trust me, avoid the next 2 paragraphs. For those of you that don’t, okay I’ll give you the specific details as to how France would have easily avoided finishing 2nd had they needed to (thus proving the theory of bonus points being pointless in this international tournament).

In 2003, they beat Italy convincingly 33-12, but didn’t get 4 tries (after all, why did they need to try?). Surely if bonus points were on offer, one of the 7 penalties that Gerald Merceron slotted would have been used to go for a try.

In 2007 they lost to England by 8 points where the scoreline was unchanged for the last 10 minutes. If France would have been offered a bonus point for a close loss, they would have surely taken 3 points from a penalty to get within the 7-point margin instead of gunning for the try.

To summarise, if bonus points were in the Six Nations, it wouldn’t have mattered.

So statistically, bonus points pretty much make zero difference to these somewhat short international tournaments (compared to, say, Super Rugby). If you are one that thinks they bring some extra excitement to the tournament, remember how many times there have been where in the dying minutes of a match, a team that was losing by just more than 7 points meekly went for poles from a penalty as a way to accept defeat in order to embrace a bonus point. Hardly the stuff dreams are made of.

Maybe the Rugby Championship will prove to be an exception and bonus points will prove to be key, but history goes against it and one struggles to see where it adds to the idealist sanctity of high-ranking test rugby.

Let’s just scratch bonus points totally and leave them for provincial or franchise tournaments. In test matches, the results speak for themselves.

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About the Author

Simply Sean lives in Johannesburg, South Africa and is a sports fanatic that flirts with the line between well-informed and unhealthily obsessed. He follows his beloved Stormers, Springboks, Proteas and Wolverhampton Wanderers with unbridled passion. Friends of his love to be near him in times of victory, and know to stand well back in times of defeat. Whether his teams win or lose, a penny for his thoughts remains a sound investment, That is, quite simply, Sean. Find his other ramblings here: www.simplysean.co.za