Ask John
Penalty tries, Jonny Wilkinson and the Baa Baas & Frans Steyn's penalties
John Griffiths
September 14, 2009

Welcome to the latest edition of Ask John where renowned rugby historian John Griffiths will answer any rugby-related query you have!

So, if there's something you've always wanted to know about the game we love but didn't know who to ask, or you think you can stump our expert - then get involved by sending us a question.

In this edition, John delivers answers on penalty try conversions, Jonny Wilkinson and the Barbarians, the IRB rankings and Frans Steyn's long-range penalties.

Q.At international level, has a conversion ever been missed after the award of a penalty try? Will, England

A.The Law relating to the award of a penalty try dates from the late 18th century. Originally a team had to "claim" such a score, the Law book stating: "On an appeal, the referee shall award a try, if, in his opinion, one would undoubtedly have been obtained but for unfair play or interference of the defending side."

Interestingly, in the early years of the Law the try was awarded on a line through the place where the ball was when the infringement occurred. It wasn't until 1937 that the Law changed to read "Such try shall be awarded between the posts," making subsequent conversions easier.

Penalty tries in international matches involving the big eight - the original Five Nations and Tri-Nations - are rare. The first was awarded in 1947 during the opening Test of the Australia and New Zealand series at the Exhibition Ground in Brisbane. Thirty minutes into the game the All Black forward Harry Frazer was taken out without the ball near the Wallaby goal-line and Australian referee, Tom Moore, awarded the try under the posts, Bob Scott converting.

South Africa's first penalty try came in their 1963 Cape Town Test against Australia when Tommy Bedford was held back when chasing a kick over the Wallabies' try-line. Keith Oxlee converted. And the first penalty try in an International Championship match occurred at Murrayfield in 1981 when Andy Irvine was obstructed by Gareth Davies when clear to score in the Scotland-Wales match. Dave Burnett of Ireland awarded the penalty try and Jim Renwick converted.

In recent years penalty tries have become less rare, with referees now permitted to award them for persistent infringement, but none of the conversions of penalty tries awarded in cap matches involving the big eight to date has been missed.

Q.I understand that the IRB rankings are based on a rather simple mathematical formula, with each game leading to an equal loss and gain of points. I also understand that new unions come in with a set number of quality points (40).

What confuses me, however, is how the IRB made the original ranking and points declaration when the system began in 2003. Did they go back and do the math for every union over the last 100 or so years, beginning with 40 points for each union? Was there another way to get to those points and rankings? Caleb Borchers, United States

A.The IRB rankings do indeed take into account the results of every major international match played by its member Unions since 1871. The weighting that is given to matches in the past, however, diminishes with the number of matches the Union has played, so that the most recent results carry the heaviest weighting.

The only international matches included in the analysis are those involving an IRB member's most senior national side against another IRB member's most senior side. Thus internationals against the British & Irish Lions or against non-IRB member Unions - for example the various cap matches played by Unions against President's or World XVs or, in Wales's case, their cap matches (in the 1990s) against the Barbarians - are excluded from the database from which the rankings are extracted.

Q.Has Jonny Wilkinson ever played for the Barbarians FC? Michael Cordell, England

A.Jonny Wilkinson has not played for the Barbarian FC to date. The famous club without a home continues to play the majority of its matches during the northern hemisphere season, but with the increasing League, Cup and Test commitments of rugby's professional era it is now difficult for Home Unions players to obtain release from their club or national commitments to appear for the Barbarians.

It's all a far cry from the pre-Leagues era when the highlight of the wind-down to the northern hemisphere season was the Barbarians' Easter tour of South Wales. Thirty or so of the leading players from the Home Unions and France gathered annually to play matches against Penarth (Good Friday), Cardiff (Easter Saturday), Swansea (Easter Monday) and Newport (Easter Tuesday).

The majority of the club's players in their high profile matches these days are drawn from the Tri-Nations and the fact that some of rugby's biggest names are happy to play out-of-season for the Barbarians is testament to the high standing the club continues to enjoy in rugby circles.

Q.Do you know why some rugby jerseys have lines under the number and some don't? Brock Norris, United States

A.One explanation might be to help referees and officials identify players more easily, especially players who have fallen on the floor in the tackle area. In such circumstances officials can be confused by the rotational symmetry of the number nine and number six jerseys. Underlining the numbers clarifies identification.

Q.What constitutes being a British & Irish Lion? Ryan Jones was called up as a replacement in South Africa this summer and arrived there. Is he officially a 2009 Lion? Jerry Flannery, injured in the training camp before they left, is he a 2009 Lion? Pete Carey, Wales

Q.The official Lions website for the 2009 tour shows neither Jones nor Flannery as members of the tour party.

A few players in recent Lions history have toured without appearing in a match. Many felt that Steve Smith, England's scrum-half in the 1980 Grand Slam season, was unlucky to miss out on selection for Bill Beaumont's Lions to South Africa that summer.

It came as little consolation to Smith that the injury-stricken tourists called for him as a late replacement. He flew out to join the party for the final match, was effectively the fourth-choice scrum-half and sat on the bench without being called on during the fourth Test in Pretoria. When he was presented with his Lions blazer and tie afterwards he felt unable to wear them: not as an act of disrespect; he felt that he had not deserved the honour.

The record books, however, show that he was a 1980 Lion, though at the time he felt in his own mind that he wasn't. Fortunately he earned what he called the right to wear the blazer and tie in 1983 when he toured New Zealand (as a replacement, again) and this time captained the Lions against Hawke's Bay.

Another scrum-half, Scotland's Andy Nicol, was a 2001 Lion in Australia but never appeared on the field for Martin Johnson's tourists, while fellow Scot Simon Taylor was a Lion (travelling to New Zealand in 2005) but had his tour cut short through injury before taking the field. Both Nicol (in 1993) and Taylor (2001), like Ryan Jones (2005) had previously appeared for the Lions.

Q.Has anyone place-kicked three goals from his own half in a Test before, as Frans Steyn did in South Africa's Tri-Nations win against New Zealand in Hamilton? Anon

A.Duggie Morkel and Gerry Brand were Springboks famed for kicking goals from their own half in Tests in the early half of the 20th century, while post-war Don Clarke (New Zealand), Pierre Villepreux (France) and Paul Thorburn (Wales) were among those who made headlines for kicking famous goals in Tests from their own territory.

But a trawl of 138 years of Test reports indicates that Frans Steyn's achievement of landing three such goals in the same international match is probably unique. The nearest challenger found is Vivian Jenkins, the Welsh fullback of the 1930s who toured South Africa as vice-captain of the 1938 British & Irish Lions.

In the first international of that series, played at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, Jenkins became the first Lion to land three penalties in a Test. His first successful effort was from just inside his own half, his second flew over the crossbar from eight yards inside his own half while his third goal was kicked from near the Springboks' ten-yard line.

In those days Test rugby in South Africa was played with an eight-panelled leather ball while Jenkins was more accustomed to kicking the four-panelled Gilbert "Match" ball in British rugby. His achievement, of course, was at high altitude. Steyn's goals were kicked nearer to sea level and on a windless evening.


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