SO the RBS Six Nations Championship is almost with us again.
Our nerves are jangling, our livers are braced and our armchairs are booked for the next two months. And as the opening weekend of action looms, one question dwarfs all others. Can England retain the title they won so dramatically last year?
Eh, hang on, I hear you say. Didn't England finish last year's tournament in ignominy, battered, bruised and beaten out of sight by Wales? And didn't that thunderous bout in the Millennium Stadium end with Sam Warburton holding the trophy and tens of thousands of Welsh supporters delirious with joy?
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Well, yes, right on both counts, but there is an intriguing twist to this tale. For if the Six Nations worked on the same scoring basis as just about every other rugby tournament on earth these days then England would indeed have won it last year.
A glance at the 2013 table shows that Wales finished top of the pile with eight championship points, level with England but ahead (+56 against +16) on points difference. Bring bonus points into the equation, though, and a rather different picture emerges.
In this, the positions are reversed. England might still have been nursing their wounded pride after that Cardiff hammering, but they would have headed back up the M4 with the trophy safely stowed on the team bus. And if that image is hard to swallow, it doesn't get any easier when you realise that Scotland would have helped them do it.
England had begun last year's campaign with a 38-18 victory over Scotland at Twickenham. More significantly, in this context at least, they scored four tries in doing. Had this been a Heineken Cup, Aviva Premiership, RaboDirect PRO12 or (almost) any other match, then England would have taken a bonus point for doing so, a point which would have given them a critical edge over Wales at the finish.
It gets more intriguing still as you go down the table. Scotland took third place last year, but only on the strength of having a better - well, less worse actually - points difference than Italy. Under the scoring system that is now the norm throughout rugby, though, Kelly Brown's side would have had one more championship point than the Italians. In fact, Italy, who won two games, could even have been ousted from fourth place by Ireland, who won one, as the Irish would have picked up three losing bonus points over the course of the championship.
The question of bonus points came up at the launch of last year's competition. Broadly speaking, most coaches were either enthusiastic or at least open-minded on the issue. Ironically, the Wales assistant coach Rob Howley was one of the more vocal advocates of the bonus point system, although it is easy to suspect that his tune might have changed by the end of the championship.
It is understood that John Feehan, the chief executive of the Six Nations, has drawn up two briefing papers on the issue. It is also widely believed that the greatest resistance to the introduction of bonus points has come from France. Certainly, Philippe Saint-Andre of France was the only coach who actually put his head above the parapet to voice opposition, saying that he would feel "cheated" if a team won the grand slam but did not take the championship title because another side had stacked up a pile of bonuses.
An arcane point? Something that could never happen in real life? Far from it, for this is exactly the situation that existed in 2002. In that year's competition, England were scoring tries for fun, but France won all their games. England's only bad day at the office was when they lost 20-15 in Paris. Had they applied, England would have taken a bonus point from every game, while France would have collected just one (for scoring four tries against Ireland).
Now this is where it becomes interesting. Honest. Under current Heineken/Rabo/etc formula, both teams would have finished the championship with 21 points. If points difference was then the first criterion used to decide placings, then England (with a whopping +131) would be champions. On the other hand, if the head-to-head between the two nations was critical, then France would, of course, be the winners. You choose.
There are a number of arguments to be made in favour of bonus points in the Six Nations, and that the tournament is out of step with the rest of the rugby world without them is the least persuasive.
When you have the most successful rugby championship on earth, when your stadiums are full to capacity, when broadcasters are falling over themselves to secure rights and when you are making money by the truckload, then who do you want to fall in step with anyway? There's no point in banging on about the Six Nations' uniqueness if you then try to erode that very quality by mimicking everyone else.
There is no question that bonus points have added value in other competitions. They give interest to otherwise meaningless matches and reward an attacking mentality. But I tend to think they are better suited to the marathon format of league campaigns than short sprints where only a handful of teams are involved. In deciding places across Heineken Cup groups, they can have a skewing effect. The fact that the Six Nations is not played on a home-and-away basis is another powerful argument against.
Had bonus points been in operation last year, then six would have been awarded for tight results, and only two for scoring four tries.
Does anyone think that those magnificent, attritional, confrontational contests would have been improved by a glut of touchdowns?
Does anyone really think that England deserved to win?