The French Top 14 rugby season kicked off over the weekend with Jonny Sexton guiding Racing Metro to victory over Montpellier in one of the first games. This season should be interesting from a number of perspectives, besides the involvement of Sexton. In April, the governing body of French club rugby, the LNR (Ligue Nationale de Rugby), announced new plans (titled the ‘New Deal’) to improve the competition. One of the lesser publicised changes is to the losing bonus point system. From this season, losing teams will have to be within 5 points rather than 7 in order to get a losing bonus point. The suggestion is that teams are not attacking enough in the closing stages of games and are predominantly looking for a drop goal or trying to earn a penalty rather than looking for a try. Whether this will make any significant difference is debatable. If fact, you could argue that its simply shifting the goal posts (sorry - couldn't resist!).
So before the rule change teams that are losing by 8-10 points had the incentive to kick for a 3-pointer. If you are losing by 11-12 points (or more) you had to go for a try. Now teams that are losing by 6-8 points have the incentive to kick for a 3-pointer and teams losing by 9-10 points must go for a try. The point being is that the incentive to kick for a 3-pointer to earn a losing bonus point is still there and instances will still occur. The other problem with the new rule change is that it only has an impact in the last 10 minutes or so of a game (to be fair this is a problem with the losing bonus point system in general). A clearer incentive to promote attacking play throughout the whole game would be to amend the try bonus points system, perhaps on a sliding scale, for example, 1 point for 3 tries scored, 2 points for 4-6 tries scored, 3 points for 7 or more tries scored.
Another interesting perspective is how the trend in losing bonus points in the Top 14 league compares with the Pro 12 (Celtic League) and the English Premiership. The figure below plots the average losing bonus points per team in each of the three leagues across the last 10 seasons. The French Top 14 and English Premiership both have similar levels of losing bonus points per team with the Pro 12 generally lying below these two competitions. This could be because both the Top 14 and English Premiership are national competitions and involve a greater degree of rivalry resulting in closer matches between teams. The Pro 12 on the other hand involves teams from a number of different countries with less traditional rivalry. It’ll be interesting to see how it all unfolds this season however given the difference that now exists in the losing bonus point system across the three competitions.