Rugby's points not the issue
I popped up to the Green Mile this week to watch defending champions UCT’s first Varsity Cup match of the season against Shimlas, at least partly motivated by a desire to observe for myself the experimental new points-scoring system.
Just for those who do not already know, the competition, with the blessing of the International Rugby Board, is trialling a new scoring method which may - or, just as pertinently, may not - aid the cause of “attacking” rugby.
The Varsity Cup, as a growing but still fledgling entity, is a perfect, progressive vehicle for trying out new things in the game, so in principle I have no objection to the 2012 decision to award three points for a conversion, and reduce the value of penalties and dropped goals to two points.
As it turned out on the evening in question, the new formula barely got an opportunity to be properly tested; it needed a well-balanced contest for that.
Instead a fumbling, bumbling and outmuscled UCT were thumped by a surprising margin of 38-10 (four tries to two). The only difference under the old system would have been the Free Staters winning 37-10 ... ja well no fine and all that.
More of a talking point afterwards, I’d suggest, was the astonishing points swing from the last time these teams met, in the semi-finals last season when the Capetonians won 57-20 at the same venue: it meant a seismic shift of 65 points!
So yes, the merits and demerits of the altered values in certain scoring methods may better be evidenced in some ding-dong fixtures as the competition progresses.
But I nevertheless have an early hunch that they are trying to fix something which ... well, ain’t really broke.
For me the last, universal “correction” in rugby scoring - changing the value of a try from four to five points in 1992 - got the balance in the game right and further fiddling isn’t necessary.
I still believe that the penalty should remain of three-point value, and not two, because far from encouraging positive play you might find that a team which is, say, eight points to the good midway through a reasonably tight contest in other respects and with bonus points not at stake, may be more prepared to sit back and offend in penalty terms - knowing that it would take more than four unanswered pots at goal for the opponents to nose ahead.
As things stand, there is still strong sense - outside of the Varsity Cup, of course - to going all out to avoid concession of penalties when under the cosh, given their reasonably good value in points terms, which in its own way is aiding a constructive approach.
I have a slightly more flexible view on the “drop”: like it or not, there are a few juggernaut rugby union countries, including Australia and New Zealand, where crowds increasingly heckle use of it as a scoring method when a full line of attackers beckons invitingly outside the man (usually the flyhalf, of course) giving it an indulgent stab.
Personally, I still see a certain art form in either landing a snap dropped goal under acute pressure from charging defenders, or banging one over from a spectacular, wind-assisted 55 metres a la Frans Steyn!
I’d keep its value at three ... but perhaps would be less distraught on that front if the IRB did change it worldwide to two.
Rugby’s modern-day bugbears, I suspect, lie in different areas to the value of its points.
The breakdown remains an absolute minefield, too open to subjective officiating, and scrummaging, once a mighty cornerstone of the game, has been reduced to a near-farce far too often.
Scrums are taking an eternity to be set, in the first place, because of the cumbersome, mandatory four-pronged pre-orders involved, collapses chew up time as well and it has become increasingly more fashionable for penalties to scupper the process entirely on the grounds of “early engagement” and the like.
In broad terms, referees are being seen and heard way too much, which does nothing to benefit viewing pleasure.
These, then, are arguably greater challenges for rugby.
Oh yes, and before I forget: the Springboks would still have been squeezed out in that gut-wrenching 2011 World Cup quarter-final against Australia under the “Varsity Cup” method: the only difference is that it would have been by 9-6 on the scoreboard rather than 11-9.
At the risk of crying once again over spilled milk, the questionable interpretations of a certain whistle-man that day were wholly more influential in the outcome, and somehow symbolic of the game’s greater flaws in these times ...
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