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Suitably for an age of zero interest rates, rugby union’s modern age appears to be one in which its currency, the point, has at last stopped depreciating.
The final day of the 2015 Six Nations, an afternoon of ratcheting craziness during which three matches produced 221 points and 27 tries might suggest the opposite, that the point has never been worth less. But in fact its value looks to be reviving, or at least stabilising, after decades of depreciation.
That astonishing Six Nations finale brought the total number of points scored in 90 Six Nations matches since 2010 to 3518, an average of 39.1 per match. That is well below the average of 46 points between 2000 to 2009.
With four seasons to go before the end of the decade, it may be that the all-out attacking displayed on the final day in 2015 brings a longer-term echo, and with it higher scores. But it would take an average of 56 points per match across all four years, well above the previous record of 53.5 for even a single year, to bring this decade’s mean to up to its predecessors.
And there is a similar pattern in World Cups, where scoring has fallen since the all-time high of 59.1 points per match in Australia in 2003. The 2007 tournament in France averaged 51.6 points, 2011 in New Zealand produced 47.8.
Longer-term trends are best illustrated by the Five/Six Nations whose long-term consistency of membership — Italy’s admission in 2000 is the only change in more than a century — and format offer a decent statistical base for changes in the game.
Low scoring in the middle of the last century give way to steady increases from the 1970s on. Averages of 15.8 points in the 1930s, 13.8 in the truncated 1940s, 14.4 in the 1950s and 16.7 in the 1960s gave way to 25.8 in the 1970s, 30.9 in the 1980s, 37.3 in the 1990s and 46.0 in the first decade of the current century. (Italy’s admission had some impact in their first decade, but matches involving the original five still averaged 44.3 points).
Those numbers explain why results like Wales’ 34-21 defeat of England in the last round of the 1967 championship made such an impact. To be similarly above contemporary averages, a modern match would have to finish 80-49, putting even the England v France finale in 2015 in the shade. A scoreline like South Africa’s 44-0 beating of Scotland in 1951 equates to 119-0, while the 55-35 of England v France in 2015 is equivalent to 20-13 in the 1950s.
Several factors fuelled those trends. The value of the try went from three points to four in 1972 and up to five in 1991. The modern player benefits from better pitches, a much more user-friendly ball and lighter clothing and boots. Rule changes have consistently been aimed to creating a more open, attractive game. Try-scoring rose steadily from an average of 2.5 tries per match in the 1960s to 4.5 in the 2000s.
Points from goal-kicks have risen still more rapidly. No player has benefited more from those better kits and pitches than the kicker, freed from sodden, misshapen leather balls and boots and quagmire underfoot, and permitted to kick from tees. Earlier generations risked maiming a teammate deputed to hold the ball steady, with stretched arm and finger tips while laying flat on his stomach.
Legislation aimed at opening the game has created an ever-expanding rule book and range of penalty offences. The 1970s, fondly remembered as the first great modern era of running rugby, was also the first decade in which there were more penalties than tries.
In the 1950s an average of 1.3 penalties was kicked per match. This number has continued to climb while try-scoring has receded in the current decade, with 5.3 penalties kicked — four times as many as 60 years ago — and 3.4 tries scored in each match, the greatest ever disparity in favour of the boot.
One reason why scoring has levelled off is greater competitive equality. The Five/Six Nations has never seen higher scoring than in the first few years after professionalism was accepted in 1995. This was an era of Anglo-French dominance, when the two hegemonic nations openly wondered about the viability of the tournament following weekends like the one in 1998 when both ran up more than 50 points.
The match average topped 50 points in five seasons out of six from 1997, peaking at 53.5 in 2000. It declined from that peak as England’s all-conquering era ended after the 2003 World Cup, Wales and Ireland became genuinely competitive and Italy tougher to beat. Averages fell below 40 points per match between 2008 and 2013 as blowouts became rarer.
They have inched up again in the last two seasons, reaching 40.2 points in 2014 and 44, driven by that final weekend in 2015. But the average for the 12 matches before that weekend was 36.6.
The levelling off in scoring is no bad thing, particularly with the World Cup in mind. The try-fest is fun when it is exceptional rather than the norm. While nobody has any desire to see the scoring of the 1950s return, a considerable proportion of the scoring averages of the 1999 (59 points) and 2003 World Cups (59.1) came from massacres of hopelessly overmatched teams. The example of the Namibians beaten 142-0 by Australia at Adelaide in 2003 comes to mind.
While rugby’s developing nations still rarely beat the established powers, the massacres are becoming rarer. The 2011 World Cup was the first since 1991 without a 100-point win.
And when the low-scoring match is the exception it becomes, like the 2011 final — New Zealand v France, 8-7 — all the more memorable, that is to say grippingly tense because every score matters. The rugby point, therefore, is one currency whose hardening could be beneficial all around.
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