Over time the tactical emphasis in rugby has switched from goals to tries .
There’s plenty of skill involved in kicking goals, but today I doubt there are many people who’d rather watch goals than tries. The question is whether there is anything wrong with the current points system? With a potential 7 points available for a try and only a possible 3 points for a penalty goal or field goal, doesn’t that provide enough incentive for teams to score tries?
This year we’ve seen a trial of a new points scoring system in the Varsity Cup in South Africa. Before I look at the results of that trial and my idea for an alternative, let’s look back at some key changes to the points scoring system over time.
In the early days of the game you scored points by kicking goals. In 1845 under the first laws of the game, to earn a ‘try’ at goal you had to get the ball over the goal line between the posts. There were no points awarded for carrying the ball over the line; a match was decided solely by which team scored the most goals.
In 1871 the laws were amended so that, in the event that the number of goals was equal, the match would be awarded to the team that had earned the most tries at goal.
In 1886 a points system was adopted in which goals were worth 3 points and tries 1 point. In 1888, penalty goals were revalued at 2 points.
In 1891 the points for a try were increased to 2 and a conversion to 5; however, if a conversion was scored the points for the try did not count. The penalty goal was upgraded to 4 points.
It wasn’t until 1893 that a try notionally became worth more than a conversion. A conversion still counted for 5 points, with no value assigned to the try that enabled it, but if the conversion were missed the team received 3 points for the try — meaning that the conversion earned just 2 additional points for the team.
In 1905 the reward for a field goal was set at 4 points, the same as for a penalty goal.
In 1948 the values of the penalty goal and the field goal were reduced to 3 points.
In 1971 the points for a try were increased to 4, meaning a converted try was worth 6 points. (It wasn’t until 1979 that the laws were amended so that points were awarded separately for the try and the successful conversion.)
In 1992 the try reward was further increased, to today’s value of 5 points.
The IRB has made it clear that it believes the focus of the game should be on the scoring of tries, not goals (as has Sam Ikin, who regularly affirms that winning games by scoring more tries is ‘the way God intended’).
Many people argue that the way to encourage attacking, running rugby is to increase the value of a try, and/or reduce the value for a penalty goal, to encourage teams to keep playing for a try rather than taking the shot. But just as many people seem to hold the view that such a move would encourage defending teams to infringe more when a team is within shooting range, as the cost of allowing the attacking team to score a try would be much greater than conceding a penalty goal. And then those on the side for change suggest countering negative defensive tactics by increasing the number of yellow cards handed out for deliberate offences.
While we all have a view on what would happen if the reward for scoring tries were increased, we’ll never know unless such a change is introduced in a competition — and that’s exactly what the IRB has done, by allowing a trial of a new points system in the Varsity Cup. The trial includes no change for the value of a try but increases points for a conversion to 3, while reducing the points for a penalty and field goals to 2.