So the ACT Brumbies have won six and lost four this season, while the Blues have won five and lost five. That means the Brumbies are sitting one win ahead of the Blues on the Super 14 ladder, right? Actually, the Blues are essentially one win worth of points ahead. Huh? Welcome to the weird and wacky world of Super 14 bonus points.
The situation just described is not unique.
There are several other examples of it in the current table, which would look drastically different if wins and losses were the primary criterion for position (have a look and see for yourself!).
Most notably, the Blues would be ninth rather than fifth. True, they would still be just one win away from the team in fourth. However, to climb above this team the Blues would need at least five teams above them to keep losing – highly unlikely.
And let’s remember 2007, when the Brumbies came fifth with a nine win/four loss record, and thus missed the semi-finals, while the Crusaders came third with an inferior eight win/five loss record.
Is it justified that bonus points can have such a highly distorting influence on Super 14 tables?
One common defence is that the situation is the same for everyone, and all teams know the rules before a season commences.
But this is no reason to persist with a system, year after year, if it is not working.
So is the system working?
Its defenders argue that it results in better rugby. But let’s examine some matches from this season to see if this claim holds up.
Exhibit A: Highlanders 6 Vs Crusaders 0 in Dunedin
The lowest scoring and arguably most boring match in the history of Super Rugby. Can someone please explain to me why the Crusaders deserved a bonus point from this match? If anything, both teams deserved to be penalized points for such a turgid, inept display.
Exhibit B: Chiefs 63 Blues 35 in Hamilton
Why did the Blues deserve a bonus point for scoring a fourth try late in the match when behind 20-56? Oh, I get it – if not for the lure of a bonus point, the Blues would have executed rolling mauls and played for penalties. Yeah, right.
Exhibit C: Blues 24 Reds 31 in Albany (Auckland) last weekend
Trailing 17-31 with the final siren already having sounded, Queensland were certain of winning. So how exactly was this match improved by the Blues scoring a try to make the final score 24-31? Although completely meaningless in terms of result and entertainment, this try garnered the Blues two bonus points and increased the total points tally of the match from 5-0 to 5-2. This implies a 40 percent “improvement” in the match for scoring a trifling try after the final bell. Absurd!
Yes, there are some memorable matches where “bonus” points truly may be deserved. For example, the excellent match between the Brumbies and the Bulls recently in Canberra.
But the above three examples are by no means atypical, and therefore I contend that the system is not working.
So much for tearing down the straw man – that’s always the easy part. The hard part is to make alternative and constructive suggestions.
Here are mine:
1. The iniquity of the present system should be removed by using bonus points only as a tiebreaker when win/loss records are equal.
What do I mean by iniquity?
That points hard-earned for winning a match count no more than the soft points virtually gifted to the Blues in losing in matches B and C above. This is professional sport, where winning should count first and foremost. It is ridiculous that frivolous bonus points count as much as win points, and thus that the Blues head the Brumbies on the points table.
Of course for-and-against, as traditionally used in most football codes, including rugby, would equally do the job I suggest here for bonus points. However, if people instead want to use bonus points for this purpose, then I cannot see any harm in that, especially since it probably would make no difference.
2. The inequity should be removed by having the same number of competition points for all matches.
What do I mean by inequity?
That with the current system a match may generate either 4, 5, 6 or 7 competition points in all, which clearly is ridiculous. Yes, I know that football has this (3 for a win, 2 in all for a draw), but that is purely a product of draws being a likely result in that very different sport.
In this context, the nub of the current problem may be clearly seen: that winning teams do not lose any points when their opponents acquire bonus points. In other words, there is an inequitable situation in which only the losing team has motivation to try.
In the win-loss world of professional sport, it should always be the case that what one team gains, another loses. Had the Chiefs in Hamilton had to sacrifice a point for conceding a fourth try to the Blues, one can be sure they would have defended far more vigorously. Ditto for the Reds last weekend.
I advocate 6 points for all matches, with 4 for winning, and each side being able to claim a bonus point for 4 tries, which one might call “good attack”.
If a side does not claim this point, then the other gets the (bonus) point for “good defence” (i.e., for not conceding 4 tries).
In the rare event of a draw, each team gets 2 win/loss points and a bonus point, regardless of tries scored and conceded.
In the above scenario, the try by the Blues after the siren would have seen this match change from 4+2 to the Reds to being 4 to the Reds and a bonus point each.
In other words, the Reds would have had a reason to keep trying.
Some would say this suggestion is still artificial, but at least it’s a whole lot fairer than the current situation (5-0 to 5-2), and it pleases those who want bonus points in order to encourage positive play.
On which point, what is it saying about a sport if it needs artificial incentives to encourage teams to play positively?
Shouldn’t that just happen of its own accord if all is well and good with the game?