The Premiership’s uncomfortable truth: There are too many tries

Benhard Janse van Rensburg dives over for a try
Benhard Janse van Rensburg scores one of 12 tries for Bristol Bears against Newcastle Falcons last Sunday - Getty Images/Bob Bradford

The message from around the Premiership has sounded loud and clear: leave our league alone. After Rob Baxter pleaded with the game’s governing body, World Rugby, to stop meddling with the laws of the game, other English head honchos backed up the Exeter director of rugby’s cry. Crucially, no one has publicly disagreed with Baxter’s remarks.

For the most part, it is tough to dissent from Baxter’s discourse. How can the sport – and, most desperately, the Premiership – expect to attract new fans when its very fabric is tweaked on an almost annual basis? Familiarity breeds contempt? Not in the sports arena, where fans are creatures of habit who rugby needs to win over – and hook.

Yet, something has not sat too easily over the course of this Premiership season. The number of tries, in a 10-team league, has been extraordinary. Last weekend, across five matches, 49 were scored (albeit with an anomalous, 80-point thrashing of Newcastle chucked in for good measure).

In the inaugural season of the league, in 1987, 269 tries were scored in total across the 64 matches played. In one round this season, therefore, there have been nearly a fifth of the total tries scored across the entire campaign (featuring 12 rather than 10 clubs).

And yet, we’re told that modern defences are better than ever!

Comparisons with the amateur era are unfair in the sense that rugby in 2024 is practically a different sport to what it was in 1987 but in terms of tries the juxtaposition is just. The try was the pinnacle of the sport before professionalism in 1995 and it remains the pinnacle now; both in terms of excitement and in the sheer amount of points on offer.

Too much of a good thing

If the last round of Premiership fixtures is any indicator, there are now too many tries being scored. Everyone loves a high-scoring thriller and complaints about too much crossing of the whitewash might seem perverse but it is only if scores are tight where an abundance of tries is justified. One can have too much of a good thing, and rugby’s beauty is in its contrasts. There is no darkness without light and, on a rugby field, without the sense that a team has had to work incredibly hard for a try, its cachet is lessened.

Pundits and coaches draw comparisons between rugby and chess but pawns can only move one square forward at a time; never have they been able to reach the opposite side of the board without stopping.

If that is all a little too miserable with springtime in full flow, perhaps the more nuanced view is that there are too many ‘meaningless’ tries. In the corridors of power, the high number of tries in the Premiership will be seen as nothing but a positive in its bid to construct the most entertaining league on the planet, but the raw numbers are masking the fact that too many of this season’s matches have lacked competition.

There have been some classics, of course, but there have been some of the most stale contests in the league’s history.

I was at the StoneX last weekend for Saracens’ half-hearted demolition of Gloucester. There were 11 tries, two hat-tricks, yet as soon as the hosts registered their first second-half score the match was over as a contest – and ended as a spectator piece, too.

Saracens were scoring tries at will and for a spell allowed Gloucester to do the same. A 13-minute hat-trick from rapid wing Josh Hathaway should have left the neutral desperate for more but it was largely meaningless. At times, it was like watching (clumsy) basketball, and the final score did little to disprove that.

Do tries always equate to entertainment?

It leads onto the more philosophical question of whether tries equate to entertainment in rugby. Clearly, a try is marketable, and the snappy time from a try’s birth to its score is auspicious for social media, but any neutral watching Saracens against Gloucester last weekend would have received greater sporting entertainment from a try-less match that finished 15-9.

Rugby is unpredictable and imperfect and, sometimes, there might not be any tries. That’s life. We do not deserve tries. The fascination – or obsession – has spoiled us rotten, to the point that if matches do not feature any then they are dismissed as dull.

So, what is the solution? Given the steady trend of increasing tries over the past 30 or so years, the deluge of tries does not look set to end any time soon. The way, therefore, is to take aim at try bonus points. Seventy-five matches have taken place so far this season and there have been 65 try bonus points. Where once scoring four tries was a rarity, an achievement which deserved reward, now it is de rigueur.

To redress the balance, the Premiership must take a leaf out of the books of both the French leagues and Super Rugby and switch to their wholly superior system of teams having to score three more tries than their opponents to secure a try bonus point – the number of total tries is irrelevant. That will do nothing to lower the Premiership’s try-scoring rate, but more value will be placed on each score.

Under this system, Saracens will still have earned their bonus point against Gloucester last weekend but only by the skin of their teeth; and under this system, there is no way that Mark McCall’s side would have been so ragged in the second half.

This arrangement forces teams to continue defending and, perhaps, continue scoring – but the foot can never be taken off the gas. It also means that a try bonus point is an impossibility in a losing cause.

So, Baxter is largely correct. But one tiny, click-of-a-finger tweak could make a terrific difference to the Premiership’s drama and jeopardy.

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