Rugby's Six Nations Championship kicks off tomorrow at 2.15pm when Wales host Scotland at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff. This time last year I wrote about the introduction of bonus points in the Championship for the first time and the possible rationale for the rule change.
The 2017 tournament resulted in the award of 11 bonus points in total. 5 bonus points were awarded for scoring four or more tries while a further six were awarded as losing bonus points (losing by seven or fewer points). As one might expect, the 2017 winners England gained the most (winning 3 bonus points over their five games), while Ireland, France, Scotland and Wales all won two bonus points each. Only Italy did not benefit from the new system.
It is to Italy I now turn. As the newest member of the group, joining in 2000, Italy have traditionally been the weakest team in the Championship. The Azzurri have collected the "wooden spoon" (award for finishing last) on 12 of the 18 times they have played in the Six Nations, including the last two years. As stated, the bonus points system failed to helped them last year.
A more subtle problem might also be emerging. Given the relative weakness of Italy, the other teams could 'target' them for bonus points. England, France, Ireland and Scotland all won try bonus points from their games with Italy. The only other try bonus point was won by England in their victory over Scotland. This may be an unintended consequence of the rule change.
An analysis of Italy's points difference from their first appearance in 2000 to last year's competition is presented below.
What could be of concern for the country and rule makers is the 2017 observation, the last point on the graph. The country reported their biggest negative score ever, with a points difference of -151. This coincides with the introduction of bonus points.
It is important to note, this is a single data point, and more are required before one can start to draw conclusions about any potential unintended effect the new rules have had on the Italians. It is interesting however. That said, their performance in 2016, before the bonus points system commenced, was their worst to date. Maybe the team is just weaker than ever before? Either way, it will be interesting to watch the Azzurri over the next six weeks to see if the trend continues.