Solving rugby’s scoring dilemma

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    Nick Bishop’s recent column about the changes in rugby from the (mostly) amateur era to the (mostly) professional era sparked yet more discussion about whether changes to scoring could change the way rugby is played, in particular whether it could make the game more open and change the balance of tries to penalty goals.

    As Nick’s article highlighted, rugby has already changed a lot. A quick check of World Rugby data shows that in international matches the average number of tries and the number of minutes the ball is in play have increased steadily over recent decades.

    Changes in scoring are just one of many factors that influence how the game is played – rules and the way they are interpreted and enforced (or not), the increasing levels of fitness and conditioning of players, the improvements in coaching and analysis are some of the other critical factors.

    Nonetheless, scoring does have an impact on how the game is played. It may be correlation rather than causation, but the adoption by most professional competitions of bonus point schemes for scoring four or more tries or three more tries than the opposing team has increased the emphasis on scoring tries.

    Various sports have tinkered with scoring in recent decades. Rugby has increased the value of tries from three to four to five points, and further increases have been trialled under various experimental laws. Rugby league increased the value of the try and reduced the value of the drop goal. The AFL has experimented with the concept of the super goal. Basketball adopted the three-point shot in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

    To make an informed assessment of whether scoring should be changed it’s important to understand the philosophy of scoring in rugby and how it differs from other games and to think about what makes a good game.

    (Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

    Opinions vary, but a good game for me has enough scores that reward skill, initiative, teamwork and the ability to capitalise on an opponent’s mistake – or some combination of the above) – but not so many that each score becomes irrelevant. There has to be a balance between attack and defence.

    I find football frustrating because so many games see zero or only one or two goals scored. That adds enormously to the pressure on officials and encourages behaviour that leads to penalties or free kicks.

    Basketball and AFL are usually at the other end of the spectrum: there so many scores that they all blur.

    Using this metric, rugby is close to the sweet spot. It’s rare to see a top-level game without at least a few tries, and most manage more. Equally important is that blowouts are rare unless teams are mismatched, suggesting that the balance between attack and defence is about right.

    The frustration in rugby is that too often – though less often than people think – games are won by the team that scores fewer tries, almost always because they kick more penalty goals.

    This highlights an important philosophical difference between games like rugby and most other sports. In most games there is only one way to score: you score a goal or you win a point. Think football, hockey, basketball, handball. AFL is almost in that category but offers a uniquely Australian addition: the behind for kicks that were almost but not quite good enough.

    (Clive Rose/Getty Images)

    These games all deal with offences by making it easier for the non-offending team to score a goal or win a point. Only the rugby family offers penalty goals or field goals as an alternative way to score.

    I think ice hockey got it right a long time ago (1904!) when it introduced the penalty box. Losing a player for two or more minutes significantly increases the chance that the opposing team will score. In the NHL a power play (having a one or two-man advantage) leads to a goal more than 20 per cent of the time. The best teams have percentages in the high 20s while the worst teams are in the mid-teens. Average and middle teams are in mid to low 20s.

    Rugby followed other sports in adopting a version of this idea: yellow and red cards. The statistics show these make a difference – teams that lose a player are less likely to win – but they don’t always lead to more tries as teams can still kick penalty goals.

    The lawmakers should trial an experimental law that removes penalty goals (except perhaps for foul play) and instead reduces the number of players on the field for more offences instead of adjusting the scoring values for tries, penalty goals, conversions and field goals. The details would need to be carefully thought through. Perhaps a yellow card for cumulative team penalties, like in basketball; perhaps a yellow card for cumulative penalties in the defensive 22; perhaps shorter yellow card periods for team or cumulative offences, or longer ones for foul play or ‘professional’ fouls.

    It’s important to think about the unintended consequences. Would coaches get their teams to play for penalties in order to force a man advantage, and would players and supporters regard tries scored with a player advantage as worth less than those scored when the opponents have a full complement of players? Would the laws need to be simplified to reduce the incidence of ‘trivial’ offences? Would more offences need to be punished by a free kick rather than a penalty?

    Removing or severely limiting the option of penalty goals would change the game. By definition it would force teams to score tries in order to win.

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    The Crowd Says (75)

    • January 6th 2018 @ 8:48am
      Rob said | January 6th 2018 @ 8:48am | ! Report

      Good article! I’m a Canuck, so probably had ‘penalty box’ in the back of my mind when thinking this up, but though years ago that minor things (that referees often ignore for the sake of continuity and fans whinging about them ‘ruining the game’) could be a 3 or 5 minute card, serious infringements the standard 10 minute card, and dangerous/severe or a second yellow the red. As it is, players have taken the proverbial mile from the inch they’ve been given, so much so that teams actually train in ways to cheat. As with hockey, penalise the severity and players will either adapt or suffer the (not so bad for minor infringements) consequences.

      I believe water polo puts people in a pen regularly for another sporting example.

    • January 6th 2018 @ 9:32am
      Real Wallaby Supporter said | January 6th 2018 @ 9:32am | ! Report

      Good thoughts and ideas. However, I think we would achieve the right balance by making penalty and field goals worth 2 points, making a try a more attractive option. This is a simpler solution than varying other laws.

      • January 6th 2018 @ 10:54am
        ethan said | January 6th 2018 @ 10:54am | ! Report

        Excellent article, and agree with this comment. The reduction from 3 to 2 for penalties and drops would make all the difference. That’s how it is for rugby league and teams very rarely take the shot at goal – and their tries are even worth one point less than rugby!

        It doesn’t need to be a dramatic change, but a small change here would lead to a much better attacking mindset for all teams, and reward team skill and fitness more than individual skill – the accuracy of one man’s boot.

        • January 6th 2018 @ 5:33pm
          Jacko said | January 6th 2018 @ 5:33pm | ! Report

          Ethan in League the ball is pretty-much uncontestable, so why would you not go for the try when the opposition cannot contest the ball?
          Mind you this year has seen many taking the 2 points in league

          • January 7th 2018 @ 11:08am
            ethan said | January 7th 2018 @ 11:08am | ! Report

            Fair point, but I think the difference between two penalties being worth more than an unconverted try, and two penalties being worth less, would prove significant. Teams would back themselves to score one try before they kicked three penalties.

            • January 7th 2018 @ 1:29pm
              Dave_S said | January 7th 2018 @ 1:29pm | ! Report

              RWS and Ethan, I agree the relativity between try and penalty points would have to be a very significant factor affecting attacking mindset.

              And ofc going for a try doesn’t rule out a penalty for all time, often penalties come from the keeping pressure in the defence – if they don’t concede the try they often concede a penalty for offside, killing the ball, etc

          • January 7th 2018 @ 1:25pm
            Dave_S said | January 7th 2018 @ 1:25pm | ! Report

            Jacko it is true that the ball is not contestable in league, but whether thru errors or the finite set of six, the ball tends to swap sides regularly.

            While the ball is in theory more contestable in rugby, innpractice it is common to see more than 6 phases, and a rugby phase is close enough to a league play-the-ball.

            So I would use contestability as a reason to differentiate in that regard.

      • January 6th 2018 @ 11:23am
        Ruckin Oaf said | January 6th 2018 @ 11:23am | ! Report

        Make a penalty 2 points and there will be a greater incentive to commit an infringement to stop a try.

        Make a penalty worth 10 points and watch the amount of infringements committed dry up dramatically

        • January 6th 2018 @ 12:28pm
          Blinky Bill of Bellingen said | January 6th 2018 @ 12:28pm | ! Report

          Exactly Rucking.

          I like seeing tries being scored as much as the next person does. However, originally wasn’t the whole idea of a try being scored to allow the team to kick for goal? Or have I got that completely wrong?

        • January 6th 2018 @ 4:56pm
          Pickett said | January 6th 2018 @ 4:56pm | ! Report

          Refs have a yellow card don’t they?

          • January 7th 2018 @ 8:59am
            Ruckin Oaf said | January 7th 2018 @ 8:59am | ! Report

            Yeah and there’s never any controversy or issues with the ref issuing a yellow card………………

            • January 7th 2018 @ 2:15pm
              Dave_S said | January 7th 2018 @ 2:15pm | ! Report

              … or with issuing penalties within kicking distance in the last few minutes of a game?

              I strongly suspect that the higher the consequences of a ref’s decision (a card or a late kickable penalty), the more reluctant many become to use the sanction.

              Similarly when politicians try to make sentencing tougher, Magistrates tend to push back.

        • January 7th 2018 @ 2:01pm
          Dave_S said | January 7th 2018 @ 2:01pm | ! Report

          Law of unintended consequences:

          Make a penalty worth 10 points and watch the amount of milked infringements skyrocketing!

          • January 7th 2018 @ 3:47pm
            Ruckin' Oaf said | January 7th 2018 @ 3:47pm | ! Report

            How many penalties given in the typical rugby match would be “milked” ?

            • January 7th 2018 @ 4:42pm
              Dave_S said | January 7th 2018 @ 4:42pm | ! Report

              I’m using the term “milk” to include “induce”.

              At the moment, how many? That’s not my point – I’m saying the inducement to do it will be much higher if penalties were worth 10 points. Not hard to make a tackler’s arm slip up too high by dropping down in the tackle, or for a front row to pull back and induce a collapse.

              • January 8th 2018 @ 6:13pm
                Ruckin Oaf said | January 8th 2018 @ 6:13pm | ! Report

                Hey Dave

                So let’s say that 10 point penalties would cause “milked” penalties to double.

                At the moment that, on average, there’s between .5 – 1 “milked” penalties per game.

                Still not a big deal.

            • January 7th 2018 @ 4:57pm
              AndyS said | January 7th 2018 @ 4:57pm | ! Report

              I would have said quite a lot, especially if you factor in playing the ref. There are a lot of teams with lacklustre attacks happy to play for penalties rather than really attack the line. It was one of the key motivations for introducing bonus points.

      • January 6th 2018 @ 4:54pm
        Pickett said | January 6th 2018 @ 4:54pm | ! Report

        @ Real Wallaby Supporter
        Fully agree.
        Make penalties and field goals worth 2.

      • January 6th 2018 @ 7:08pm
        Mmmmm..k said | January 6th 2018 @ 7:08pm | ! Report

        A penalty being worth 3 increases the amount of attractive rugby.
        Teams are less likely to offend and teams are less likely to just keep scrumming or go for maul after maul.

        Make em worth 2 and you’ll see more spoiling play and less free-flowing rugby as a result.

        How many drop goals score in an ave match?
        I would guess and say about 0.05 per game. That’s about 1 scored every 20 games.
        Why pretend they need to be changed, they don’t.

      • January 6th 2018 @ 10:44pm
        Adam Kramer said | January 6th 2018 @ 10:44pm | ! Report

        Agreed, but like to see tries worth 4, conversions worth 3, & penalty goals & drop goals worth 2. This would still reward teams with great goal kickers IF they can also score tries.

        • January 6th 2018 @ 11:20pm
          Mmmmm..k said | January 6th 2018 @ 11:20pm | ! Report

          That’s a try and conversion being 3.5 times a penalty or like having a try and conversion worth 10.5 points now.
          It would cause teams to infringe constantly and make the game boring.

          • January 8th 2018 @ 9:19pm
            Adam Kramer said | January 8th 2018 @ 9:19pm | ! Report

            The ARU trialed tries worth 6 points in the NRC, it resulted in sides getting a penalty within kicking distance turn it down & instead go for the try. There’s my evidence that more points for a try/conversion will result in less penalty goals.

            • January 8th 2018 @ 9:58pm
              AndyS said | January 8th 2018 @ 9:58pm | ! Report

              The NRC trialled 5+3 for tries and 2 for penalties, then strangely a minor variation in 6+2/2. Unsurprisingly there was little difference, and unfortunately they never tried 5+2/2 as it would have been more instructive. But even if they had, it would have been of limited use – the spread of abilities in an NRC team are such that there is a good probability of reward if a team attacks from a penalty.

              That would likely be less so in a fully professional environment, as the defense would be better organised. It is difficult to project the outcome without trialling at a higher level, but I wouldn’t be holding breath. For mine the main benefit of the NRC trial was to break the mindset prevalent in Aus rugby at the time to just defend relentlessly, kick the ball away at every opportunity and brainlessly dunt the ball over the bar whenever the opportunity was afforded. 5+2/3 makes it a viable low skill option that works just often enough to conceal a teams shortcomings, but is ultimately unambitious and won’t win titles. Hopefully the more attacking mindset in the NRC will survive the change back to standard scoring and we will see players developing some better skills before entering SR, but I guess we’ll see over the next couple of years of it survives.

    • January 6th 2018 @ 9:35am
      Tim Reynolds said | January 6th 2018 @ 9:35am | ! Report

      Good, thoughtful article. There are aspects of rugby that are entirely negative, like collapsed scrums, and others which test the patience, like kicking for goal from penalties. Rugby has attempted to address these but the problems have not gone away. Why is it that in league and union the points differential between a try and a penalty is the same, but in league the gaining of a penalty is more likely to lead to an attempt to score a try than in rugby? OK, the guarantee of having the lineout put-in has led to more kicks to the corner in union, but that then leads to an attempt to maul the ball over for a try, which can be as exciting as watching paint dry. Drop goals are usually an admission by a team that they have run out of ideas of how to score a try. Why reward this with three points? League has got this right, where the drop goal is a last resort to break a tie at the end of the game.

      • January 6th 2018 @ 10:50am
        redbull said | January 6th 2018 @ 10:50am | ! Report

        I kind of disagree. A higher value drop value rewards tactical astuteness. It can also be a way for a team to capitalise on good tactics despite refereeing, and a law book, that can allow a defending team latitude in defensive tactics. But then I wouldn’t cry foul if the drop goal was reduced to 2 points. One point though seems unfair for good tactics. It is chess versus checkers isn’t it?

        • January 7th 2018 @ 9:02am
          Ruckin Oaf said | January 7th 2018 @ 9:02am | ! Report

          Yep redbull – I’ve always thought that Australian teams don’t use the drop goal enough. When an Australian team is in the attacking 22 they will go for the try and that’s it. The opposition defence knows pretty much exactly what’s coming.

          If the first time in the 22 the fly-half dropped back and attempted a field goal then the defence might be in two minds the next time.

    • Roar Guru

      January 6th 2018 @ 10:14am
      PeterK said | January 6th 2018 @ 10:14am | ! Report

      Good article

      I would like a mandatory YC for every 3 penalties within the 22.
      Also no kicks for goal from penalties allowed (except for foul play, 3 points would stay)
      You could also be yc’s for foul play or cynical play anywhere as the case is now.

      Scrum dominance within the 22 would be rewarded by forcing a yc for 3 repeat offences.

      Drop goals 1 point

      Overall this would lead to a lot cleaner play by defending teams in the 22

      • January 6th 2018 @ 11:25am
        Ruckin Oaf said | January 6th 2018 @ 11:25am | ! Report

        And maybe a lot dirtier play from teams outside their 22.

        • January 6th 2018 @ 12:58pm
          Andy said | January 6th 2018 @ 12:58pm | ! Report

          But a penalty inside your own half or near halfway usually leads to time in the 22

          • January 6th 2018 @ 3:23pm
            Ruckin Oaf said | January 6th 2018 @ 3:23pm | ! Report

            Hey Andy,

            Yeah if you have a good line out,

    • January 6th 2018 @ 10:35am
      Mmmmm..k said | January 6th 2018 @ 10:35am | ! Report

      I wouldn’t change a thing. They’ve got it right.
      Drop goals already represent such a tiny % of scoring that it makes no sense to lessen their worth. It would just stop them being a part of the game.

      The only things to do with scoring that I would change is consider making all kicks worth 3, including conversions.

      Laws I would consider changing is making some infringements a free kick but if you kick to touch from a free kick you retain the throw in (marks not included).

    • January 6th 2018 @ 10:44am
      redbull said | January 6th 2018 @ 10:44am | ! Report

      The reference to ice hockey may not be ideal. The puck is in play fairly constantly so the team that is a player down must spend relatively longer trying to defend against scoring. Whereas in rugby 10 minutes sometimes seems like not long enough for a team with numerical advantage to capitalise, particularly as the team with a player down have the ability to slow the play down by methods other than tactical. Something I don’t know is very possible in ice hockey.

      Penalties need to stay. A team should have the ability to score points for applying pressure that results in technical, or foul, infringements.

      I do like PK’s suggestion on a “team yellow” for 3 infringements inside the 22. Imagine if it was the captain that wore the yellow!

      • January 6th 2018 @ 1:00pm
        Andy said | January 6th 2018 @ 1:00pm | ! Report

        Teams might all start nominating specific players as ‘captain’ if this happened

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