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The three-point kick in rugby is the daftest thing in sport

Bernard Foley of the Wallabies. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
Roar Rookie
3rd July, 2018
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1285 Reads

Awarding three-point kicks for all penalty offences anywhere on the rugby field is crazy. There is a simple fix.

It’s official. The David Warner memorial prize for the dumbest thing in world sport has been awarded to the three-point penalty kick in rugby. Running a close second was bowlers in cricket yelling “catch” when the ball is in the air, followed by Brad Shields playing rugby for England.

The Rugby League World Cup, an early favourite, was ruled ineligible as being a farce rather than sheer stupidity.

Few things can be more nonsensical, illogical, frustrating, time wasting, opaque, outdated, or damaging to the interests of the game than allowing kicks at goal for three points for penalties awarded anywhere on the field.

Yet, no one ever seems to talk about it. A mystery.

The dubious penalties in the third Ireland Test were a great example of why the three-point kick is nonsense. Not because they necessarily robbed Australia; Ireland played a great game.

Who knows, if they’d kicked for the corner and run a rolling maul or backline play they might have scored a couple of converted tries instead of the four penalties in the first half. We also would have gained 8-10 minutes of extra rugby instead of waiting for Sexton or Foley to line up the kicks.

Dubious ruck penalties against Sekope Kepu and Tolu Latu and, above all, the offside against Samu Kerevi when the ball ricocheted off Rob Carney underlined why the penalty kick option from anywhere on the field makes no sense.

Conversely, David Pocock may have been lucky to win a penalty for pilfering in the first half.

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Rugby is a sport that has a lot of technical offences thanks, in particular, to the intricacies of scrums and rucks. Those scrums and rucks are, by their nature, difficult to police – the melee of bodies makes it intrinsically hard for a ref to get it right all of the time.

Even if you brought the video ref in to reassess penalties (perish the thought!) it would still be a matter of opinion half the time.

Yet, points are scored from such potentially debatable decisions all the time, often half or more of all points in a game. Exactly two-thirds of the points scored in the Ireland game were penalty goals.

It’s worth remembering the origins of the penalty kick – rugby’s evolution as a game similar to football/soccer where the main aim was to score a goal.

Initially, the try was worth zero points, just a chance to try for goal. Then it was one point, later two and then three from the 1890s until 1971. The penalty goal has been worth three since 1891.

So penalty goals started out as a core part of the game but have hung on, like the appendix, as an outmoded vestige of a more primitive stage of evolution.

Part of history, but surely not the reason it is “the game played in heaven.”

The blue collar sport of rugby league has been far better at reforming and revising its rules than rugby union, despite the latter’s authorities and playing ranks being full of brain surgeons, wizards of high finance, legal geniuses and Rhodes scholars.

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The main, perhaps only, arguments you hear in favour of the ubiquitous three-point kick are “reward for pressure or territory” and “vital deterrent”.

The reward for pressure or territory argument is: get down the other end and put points on the board.

But it simply doesn’t hold water when the penalty is 30 to 40 metres out, and certainly not when it is 60 metres from goal, as happened in the second minute of the first England-South Africa Test.

It doesn’t take much merely to get into the opposition half – just hoist a kick downfield, chase and tackle and maybe a couple of breakdowns later a prop will incur the ref’s wrath by getting stuck under the legs of the guy he’s tackled and be penalised for not rolling away.

What did your team do to truly ‘earn’ those points?

Bernard Foley Wallabies Australia Rugby Union Test Championship 2016

Does Rugby have too many penalty goals? (AAP Image/Richard Wainwright)

Or, as in the case of the Kerevi offside, the key to Ireland being 35 metres out from goal was just having been scored against and having to kick off!

In other words, the reward for ‘territory’ is effectively a reward for having given away a penalty yourself! Work that one out.

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Another ridiculous example of bizarre rewards is the penalty from a scrum after the attacking team has knocked on. You stuff up by fumbling the ball, there’s a scrum to restart, the front rows lock horns and the other team’s prop slips and stumbles.

Whistle from the ever vigilant referee to penalise ‘collapsing’. How on earth is that a reward for pressure? It’s more like a reward for butter fingered-ness.

The “vital deterrent” argument is a kind of ‘war on drugs’ zero tolerance policy. If we don’t discourage them from not rolling away, collapsing in the ruck, tackler not releasing where will it all end? They’ll just keep doing it.

And worse, maybe go onto harder offences – becoming offside addicts or recidivist inserters of hands in the rucks? The horror!

It’s a bit like hanging people for stealing a loaf of bread, or sending them to Van Diemen’s Land for seven years. Cruel and unusual.

But players will keep doing certain things because, like Latu at the breakdown, they are convinced they are in the right and they saw Pocock and Peter O’Mahoney do the same thing and no one sent them to Tasmania, did they?

Or, he’ll do it because he’s made a legitimate effort to roll from the ruck, but couldn’t get disentangled, or doesn’t release because the tackler is actually holding the ball to him unseen by the ref, or collapses in the front row because his opponent has speared in on him, again unseen.

It’s not that the refs are blind, even if they are encouraged to be officious. It’s actually bloody hard to work out what’s going on half the time, and it’s even harder for the poor spectators.

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Wouldn’t it be better if they could see and understand why points are being scored?

A further drawback here is that whether a kick goes through for three points is entirely up to the kicker. Nothing to do with team play.

Another is that all these penalty opportunities are an incentive for negative rather than expansive and attractive play – get in the opposition half, take no risk, try to smother them with defence, and hope the penalty goals come.

The obvious solution is to only to penalise infringements with a point-scoring opportunity like a goal kick only in the ‘red zone’, like they do in many sports.

The aim should be to discourage fouls that frustrate attacks on the try line. So, unless the penalty is inside the 22, or is for foul play or a deliberate infringement to stop a line break or similar point scoring opportunity outside the 22, no kick at goal is needed.

Just the usual chance to kick for touch with a lineout throw (or maybe an option of a scrum or tap ball 10-15 metres in advance of the penalty spot). Make teams really earn their points.

In these days of the rolling maul, a kick to the corner is more than sufficient deterrent against infringements outside the 22. As for exceptions, aren’t referees already making judgements every game about which are deliberate, foul, dangerous or repetitive offences in deciding on yellow cards or deliberate knock-ons?

Perhaps some people actually like the suspense aspect of whether a long-range penalty kick goes over. Well, as noted above, the penalty goal remains on the cards in some situations. Those people will still have conversions to salivate over.

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I know, it’s completely illogical to award 7 points for a runaway intercept try under the posts and only a likely 5 points for a brilliant team effort scored in the corner one, but the forwards have to rest sometime!

So how about it? Time to move rugby into the 21st century and minimise three-point kicks? We could even say reduce their value to two points but we don’t want to scare the horses too much.

For Australian rugby, in mortal combat with other winter codes over audiences and players, this should be a no-brainer.

Encourage more continuity and attractive play. Put the onus on rugby and teamwork, not kicking. Less frustrating, opaque, illegitimate point scoring.

What’s not to like?