Rugby Union: Points to be borne in mind

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IN THE first pair of Five Nations matches I backed France and Wales as a double, and, as I had risked pounds 100, came away with pounds 97 profit. Last Saturday, I was not nearly so sure. I spent a troubled morning. Everyone said England were bound to beat Scotland easily, but I had my doubts. You never know with the Scots at Murrayfield.

Ireland against Wales was even more perplexing, the balance of probabilities that a home crowd together with Eric Elwood's boot would just about see Ireland through. But then, after beating Scotland, Wales had their fur bristling. In the end, I did not make any bets, which turned out to be a good thing for my peace of mind on Saturday afternoon.

Scotland could have beaten England. They deserved to. Ireland could have beaten Wales. Whether they also deserved to is more arguable. In tight matches I tend to go by tries and drop goals, as the rules of the Pilkington Cup specify for drawn matches in that competition.

These criteria are not infallible. There are tries which are not tries, as the excellent Gary Armstrong's would not have been even if the referee, Lindsay McLachlan, had allowed it. There are drop goals which are punts - as Gregor Townsend's most emphatically was not. But I can remember the time when a try counted for three points, and a drop goal for four. Disputed drop goals in the last few minutes could win a match.

This raises the question of whether the existing points allocations are satisfactory. My friend Geoffrey Wheatcroft has a radical solution. He would abolish the place kick completely. At the same time he would restore the drop goal to its old value vis-a-vis the try or, at least, to an equality.

I do not go as far as this, but I do not think the present points ratios are at all satisfactory. Take the conversion. This played no part in Saturday's matches because Gavin Hastings and Neil Jenkins failed to convert their sides' solitary tries.

But why, when you come to think about it, should a try entitle the side scoring it to have a shot at goal anyway? The reason cannot be to do with the merits of the try itself. Those scored in the corner can be just as good as - and are often superior to - the ones scored at the posts.

The true reason is historical. In rugby, the kick at goal preceded the try. Rugby has never been exclusively the handling code.

The penalty kick at goal raises different considerations. Over the years it has shrunk from equivalence to a try, first to 75 per cent of its value and then to its present 60 per cent.

There are those, such as Brian Moore, who think the process of diminution has gone too far. They certainly do not want it to go any further. They believe that a defending side who deliberately prevent an advancing side from recycling the ball are cheating and deserve to be punished.

So stated, the argument is sound enough, even if it is a touch on the retributive side. The trouble is that it is not always possible to say firmly which players are the culprits or, indeed, whether any offence against the laws has been committed at all.

England's final and crucial penalty was of the latter category. Ian Jardine (substituting for Scott Hastings) handled on the ground after a tackle. According to Jim Telfer, the Scottish director of rugby, McLachlan had specifically said during the week that Jardine's action was permissible. Afterwards, McLachlan explained that Jardine had had two goes at the ball. Other observers contented themselves with the explanation that Jardine had handled in the ruck.

As I have written before, one answer is to abolish the distinction between the ruck and the maul and to permit the use of the hands at all times. Another is to allow four points for a try, three for a drop, two for a penalty and one for a conversion. Under this system, Scotland would have beaten England 11-10, and Wales Ireland 12-10, which would have been juster results. But, whichever way you look at it, rugby will have to make itself more easily comprehensible before it becomes a true world sport.