Rugby Union: Examining points of difference

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NOTHING that has happened in the last few months has caused me to revise my opinion that the Five Nations' Championship is the greatest sporting competition in the world. It was an enthralling contest, with numerous upsets and near-upsets along the way. I cannot see why people are being so sour about it.

Or, rather, I can see perfectly well. There are two sets of reasons, one good, the other bad. I begin with the bad reasons. They have to do with the new form of the championship, with an outright winner decided on points difference in the event of a tie, as happened this season.

Certainly I can see trouble ahead if there is to be a ceremonial presentation by a member of the Royal Family after one of the concluding matches.

If, for example, Ireland had been poised to win the championship if both Wales and Scotland had lost their final matches, would there have been eight members of the Irish team waiting at Twickenham to receive their award, and seven at Murrayfield? And would two Royal personages be required to be on hand at the respective grounds? Or what?

These procedural difficulties are not, however, what chiefly agitate people, though, naturally, English supporters considered it odd when, Wales having lost the match at Twickenham, Ieuan Evans walked up to claim his bauble, after a period of confusion which was clearly organised by the present Government.

If it is any consolation to them, many Welsh supporters felt the same way, despite Evans's brave words afterwards about how no one would question Manchester United's claim on the football championship merely because they had lost their last match of the season.

But the real complaint - the fundamental reason for English sourness - is slightly different. It is not just that England should have shared the championship. It is more than this: that, morally, England won it.

The short answer is that they could really have won it if they had managed to put 16 points or more between themselves and the Welsh. Everyone agrees that England were 25 or 30 points better than Wales on the day. But, in a match exceptionally free of penalty kicks at goal, they failed to translate their superiority into points. A championship table based on tries would appear as follows:

----------------------------------------------------------------- F A Diff ----------------------------------------------------------------- France. . . . . . . . 9 2 7 Wales. . . . . . . . .7 4 3 England. . . . . . . .2 4 -2 Ireland. . . . . . . .1 5 -4 Scotland. . . . . . . 1 5 -4 -----------------------------------------------------------------

The points differences for Ireland and Scotland were -21 and -32 respectively. The points ratios for Wales and England were 1.53 and 1.22 respectively. It is arithmetically possible for a system based on ratios to produce the reverse result of one based on differences. One season it will happen with the Five Nations.

But we now have points difference. If the new system has been described as 'experimental' we are almost certainly stuck with it.

This brings me to the new laws - and the good reasons for finding this year's championship less than satisfactory. There is general agreement that the law giving the throw-in to the side kicking a penalty into touch is fair.

There was an apt illustration of its operation last Saturday at The Stoop. Leicester were awarded a penalty some 30 yards from the Harlequins line. Dean Richards instructed his full-back to kick for touch rather than for goal. From the ensuing line-out and drive he proceeded to score a try himself.

Real difficulties are now caused by referees' interpretation of the limits of ball retention and of passing off the ground after a tackle. Players are now being penalised for trying to keep the ball moving, as if a brutish and often indecisive ruck or maul were preferable to a quick scoop pass.

But then, countries such as England and New Zealand, and clubs such as Leicester and Bath, love the maul. I continue obstinately to believe not only that it is illegal when it is moving forward, but also that it is killing the game.