We investigate how changes to the lawbook in rugby union have affected the way teams score points in the Six Nations
The sport of rugby union has evolved in nearly every aspect of the game over the years. The game turned professional in the mid-1990s and is different now in terms of laws and tactics compared to 30 years ago. World Rugby, the body that governs the sport, have been pushing to try and make matches more exciting for fans and increase the appeal of rugby union as a spectator sport. The Six Nations Championship, which is the primary competition for international rugby in the northern hemisphere, have followed suit with competition and law changes to increase viewership. Skylab: EPA investigate the trends and what effect changes have had on the game.
The concept of bonus points based on results has been around for over 20 years in the domestic game, with teams that score 4 or more tries in a match or lose by 7 or fewer points being awarded an extra bonus point to their usual 0, 2 or 4 points for the result. They have been used in the Rugby World Cup group stages since 2003 and the English top tier since the 2000-01 season but didn’t arrive in the Six Nations Championship until 2017. Since their introduction, they have had a positive effect on the number of tries scored in the tournament, with an average of 5.12 tries scored per game since 2017 compared to just 3.91 per game between 2000 and 2016.
The number of tries increased during matches, and the emphasis on them as a strategy to score points has also been affected. Before 2017, on average 47% of points scored in the tournaments were from tries (not including conversions) and this figure has leapt up 10% to 57% in the years since.
Furthermore, from the two rounds of the 2023 edition so far, this year's tournament is on course for the most tries in history. Across the 6 matches this year there has been an average of 6 tries per game and 63% of all points have been from tries, the highest share yet.
In addition to the introduction of bonus points, last year saw the introduction of goal-line dropouts and the 50-22 kick law. The latter was brought in to encourage defending teams to drop a player into the space behind the defensive line to stop the kick, thus allowing more space up front and in theory, creating more line breaks and more exciting rugby for the spectator.
However, recently kicking has become a very effective strategy for success in international rugby. In both the 2020 and 2021 Six Nations tournaments, the team who won the championship also had the highest amount of kick metres made and in this year’s competition top of the table Ireland also have the most kick metres made. Furthermore, when England won the 2020 championship, they had the lowest number of line breaks of all teams.
World Rugby and the Six Nations are hoping the new laws they have introduced will encourage teams away from the tactics of territory and kicking the ball which in part they have, however, if those kicking strategies enhance a team's chances of success it may prove difficult to persuade them to play free-flowing attacking rugby at international test level.
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