BRENDAN O'BRIEN: All to play for as bonus points add unknown quantity to mix

Joe Schmidt was straight up. Bonus points? Not for him.

It was the topic du jour at the launch of last year’s Six Nations in London. Over two decades after New Zealand’s provincial championship first introduced the concept and Europe’s cherished but tradition-bound old championship was finally giving in to see what all the fuss was about. It was almost like your grandad having a go at the X-box.

“I’m not sure about bonus points,” Schmidt said that day. “There was none on offer when we went to Chicago and played the All Blacks but there were nine tries in a game played in fine weather. You play in a manner to suit the conditions. It may affect end-game decisions but not, I think, the first-half mentality of teams.”

Eddie Jones was reading off much the same page that day. Bonus points never made a difference to how any team of his had played a game apparently. The description of the tournament as “feudal” by then Scotland coach Vern Cotter was probably the best expression of doubt as to how suitable the concept was in such surrounds.

The arguments in favour were varied. It would encourage more attacking rugby. Some said it would even initiate widespread cultural change, encouraging Europe’s finest to ‘do an Argentina’ and abandon the forward-dominated approach ingrained into the collective consciousness in this hemisphere and morph into a SANZAR 2.0.

Another plus, some suggested, was that it would serve as an encouragement to Italy to hang on in there and eke out the odd losing bonus point when surrender might have been easier. Anyone with a fleeting interest in the Six Nations this past two runnings will know all too well that the Azzurri’s fortunes have simply deteriorated instead.

Italy are yet to pick up any form of bonus point in their eight games since its introduction. As for the wider attacking thesis? Take out the ties involving the Italians and there have been three bonus points awarded for scoring four or more tries in the other 16 games. Not exactly Harlem Globetrotters stuff, then.

The stats actually seem to cloud the effect bonus points have had, if any.

The average winning margin between 2014 and 2016 was dipping year to year, from 17.5 to 14.6, but it has actually perked up again since the advent of bonus points to 16.8 in 2017. It stands at 16.2 so far this term. More obvious is the increase in the number of tries scored and the points recorded.

The last eight rounds of games, when compared to the same sample from 2015 and 2016, shows 97 more points claimed — a bump of 12 per each 80 minutes — and 19 extra tries. Is that down in any way to bonus points? Or is it just alterations in tactics, refereeing or even weather conditions, as Schmidt alluded to 14 months ago?

Who can say?

The tournament organisers seem convinced anyway. Bonus points had been ushered in on a three-year trial basis but the Six Nations saw enough last year to announce in January that they were here for good even before the 2018 edition got under way. Chief executive John Feehan claimed they had introduced “an element of positive thinking”.

“Overall we’re very happy with bonus points,” he said.

“It’s very hard to give you empirical evidence that it’s better but we believe overall, on balance, that it was a good decision and we’re going to keep it. It certainly didn’t take away from anything. It’s an evenly-matched tournament this year and we think the bonus points may have more of an impact this time.” Which translates as: something in our gut tells us this is right.

There was no mention of the two main issues highlighted by many the year before: namely that the final round of kick-off times are still staggered and so allows teams playing later in the day to adapt their approaches to the latest needs, and the fact that some sides play three times at home and others only two.

What no one predicted was that away teams would claim more bonus points to this point than those with home advantage. It’s true. The count as we stand is 10-8 in the visitors’ favour with the vast majority of the latter coming in the form of losing bonus points in a tournament where margins are so often wafer thin.

Whatever about the concept at large, Schmidt must be more enamoured with it now given the five tries claimed against the Welsh last Saturday have left them in the box seat with two rounds to go. They could even clinch the championship with a five-point haul against Scotland should England not match that in Paris.

So, Feehan may well be proved right in that respect, at least.

As for the players and coaches, they’ll not be drawn on any of this in public. “It’s not something that we ever talk about,” Peter O’Mahony insisted before Ireland hit Italy for eight tries last month.

“We’re very performance-orientated, mechanical in the way we go about things, and (bonus points) doesn’t come into our factor (sic).”

We’ll see, Peter. We’ll see.

Email: brendan.obrien @examiner.ie

Twitter: @byBrendanOBrien

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