The 2017/18 European Rugby Champions Cup begins tonight when Ulster take on Wasp at Kingspan Stadium, better known as Ravenhill. This will be the 4th instalment of the Champions Cup, which replaced the Heineken Cup at the start of the 2014/15 season.
As has been the case since the 2014/15 season, 20 teams enter the pool stages, and are split into five groups of four teams. Teams in the same pool proceed to play each other twice, at home and away, between this weekend and the 3rd weekend in January 2018. At the end of the pool stage, the five pool winners and the best-runners up in three of the pools, proceed to the knockout, quarter final stage of the competition in Spring 2018.
This structure is slightly different to the previous Heineken Cup, where 24 teams entered the pool stages, in six groups of four. What has remained unchanged however, are the award of bonus points. Teams that manage to score 4 tries are awarded one attacking bonus point. One defensive bonus point is awarded to a team for losing a match by seven points or less. As always, four points are awarded to the winning team. If a game is draw two points are awarded to both teams.
Myself and two colleagues have considered the impact bonus points have had on outcomes both before and after their introduction into the Heineken Cup from 1996/97 (2nd season) to 2013/14 (final season). Our findings are very interesting.
The try bonus is extraneously effective in producing greater try-scoring outcomes, by encouraging teams to score an above-average number (four) of tries. We find that after the introduction of the point at the start of the 2003/04 season:
- Home teams are significantly more likely to score 4 tries.
- Home teams are significantly more likely to score a 4th try, having already scored 3 tries.
- Away teams are significantly more likely to score a 4th try, having already scored 3 tries.
There is a catch however. Since 2003/04:
- Home teams are significantly less likely to score 5 or more tries.
- Home teams are significantly less likely to score a 5th try, having already secured a bonus point.
So while the bonus point has worked, there is an unintended effect – that of teams scoring less tries beyond the bonus threshold. This factor is responsible for much of the decrease in average tries scored in the bonus points era, rather than an increasing incidence of teams scoring low numbers of tries.