Running up the score

I am not a fan of American football but one nice tradition they have is that, at least at the college level, it is considered bad form to run up the score on your opponents once the game has been effectively decided. This is because there is no tangible benefit in college games to having a huge margin of victory. Rubbing the opponent’s noses in the dirt is frowned upon and even though it does happen, coaches who do that tend to be criticized. So once a win is assured, coaches tend to take out their top players and give the second and third string players some playing time and do not try as hard to score more.

However, in the World Rugby Cup being played in France, the rules do favor lopsided scores during the preliminary group stage. This is because when it comes to qualifying for the quarter-final knockout stage, only the top two teams from each of the four groups of five teams can make it, and hence you need some tie-breaker rules if two teams happen to have the same number of points based on wins and bonus points. And almost all those tie-breaker rules depend upon the number of points and tries scored by each side. So running up the score is a form of insurance in case you depend upon tie-breakers to see if you qualify for the second stage.

As a result, we have had some enormously lop-sided results, mostly at the expense of Namibia and Romania. Namibia lost 52-8 to Italy, 71-3 to New Zealand, and 96-0 to France. Romania lost 82-8 to Ireland and 76-0 to South Africa.

In general, I watch just the highlights after each game is over but I had no desire to see Namibia and Romania humiliated like this so I skipped those games. Close games are much more interesting.


  1. sonofrojblake says

    I agree with #1. Taking off your best players and giving the weaker ones a chance, and not trying too hard to score sounds patronising.

  2. says

    So once a win is assured, coaches tend to take out their top players and give the second and third string players some playing time and do not try as hard to score more.

    Best I can tell, it’s considered reasonable form to play your first stringers the entire first half and then the first possession of the 2nd half, pretty much no matter what the score. But for your 1st string players to play in the 2nd half for a 2nd time, the other side has to be close enough that a comeback is at least historically precedented, even if drastically unlikely.

    Once your 2nd string goes in, they stay until they score a touchdown (on defence or offence, either). If they don’t score, that’s fine. Keep playing them. You’re not going to lose. If they do score, you put in your third stringers. You might also put your 3rd string in when you get to the 4th quarter, even if the 2nd stringers haven’t scored, as long as the other team is still too far behind to win. Once the 3rd string goes in, they stay until end-of-game.

    Partly this is (as you say) not to run up the score, but partly this is because college football has no preseason. If you want your younger players to have some real game experience before they take over their positions when this year’s starter’s graduate, you have to play them in actual games, and you don’t want them to be just gaining experience for next year if that’s going to cost you a victory this year.

    So… it’s not entirely magnanimous.

    it’s also not perfect. Earlier this year the University of Oregon followed all the conventions about not running up the score by playing their starters for only a single possession each way in the 2nd half. Then the 2nd string came in … and they scored. So they sent the 3rd string went in … and they kept scoring.

    In the end Oregon set a modern record for points in a game with 80-something. But it’s not an important record, because many teams could have scored more than that in games against overmatched opponents if they had left in their starters. In this case it just happened to be that the 3rd string played well and/or had good luck, so the Oregon scoring continued despite following scoring-minimization traditions.

  3. Holms says

    This reminds me of the famous series of cricket matches played in England by the Australian national team against many small and large English club teams. Captained by the already-famous Bradman, his teammates recall urging him to consider benching the more experienced players in favour of the greener team members when facing some of the lower order clubs, not just to take a step away from the man’s relentless drive to win, but also to spread around some proper on-field experience.

    He chose instead to field the strongest team possible in every match, winning or drawing every one of them, and with many of the wins being very large. That lineup and tour became known as the Invincibles, and brought English spectators to matches in droves. Some attendance records still have not been beaten I think.

    No point to make, just musing.

  4. says

    There is certainly no benefit in professional (American) football to running up the score, but in college football, impressively large margins of victory played a role for many years in determining the national championship, which was merely the result of a couple of polls (coaches and sportswriters) until 1998, at which point a championship game was played between two teams determined by…some polls and computer calculations. In 2014 a four-team playoff was begun, lessening the impact of blowouts, and soon there should be at least a 12-team playoff. With conferences realigning it’s possible some of those obvious mismatches will no longer be scheduled.
    The reasons for those sorts of games being played was mostly because it provided sure wins for the top teams, making it easier for them to qualify for bowl games, and because the lower tier teams would get a nice payout to come to the big schools and get trounced, providing a good chunk of their athletic budgets. Very unsure what the future will bring.

  5. mastmaker says

    In the staff games (when I was teaching) 30 odd years ago, during badminton tournament, I (the worst player there ever was) was drawn against the best player -- by far -- in the staff, who also happened to be a close friend. I avoided the expected humiliation by loudly called out to him across the court -- “If you let me score 3 points across the entire game, it is as if I won!”. That put paid to him being complacent, and he beat me in straight sets of 21-0, 21-0! Everyone -- including me -- had a good laugh.

  6. JM says

    In professional American football scores are used for tie breakers for playoff places but it isn’t the first tie breaker and over a season it’s very hard to get two teams close enough in ranking for it to matter. There is also a practical reason not to run up the score. The players risk injury every play, so putting them in when it doesn’t immediately matter is counter productive.

  7. another stewart says

    The only reason Chile wasn’t in there with Romania and Namibia was that they hadn’t yet played one of the Big 8 teams. They’ve since lost 71-0 to England.

    Australia followed up their loss to Fiji by being beaten 40-6 by Wales, and are at risk of not progressing to the knockout stage. Ireland beating South Africa probably also counts as an upset.

  8. says

    The bonus points system encourages running up the score. While I appreciated that the RWC wanted to attract more eyes with more teams (expanding from 16 to 20), embarrassing scores are no fun in any sport. It reminds me of the old North American Soccer League scoring system, 6 for a win and bonus points (up to 3) for goals scored. Cripes, that was awful.

    Is anybody else hoping for Italy to pull an upset and send New Zealand packing? Australia no longer controls their own fate, and if Tonga keeps it close against South Africa (i.e. lose by 20 points), Scotland could eliminate them with two wins (70+ against Romania, etc.). It would be hilarious to see all three “big” teams from the south eliminated at the same time.

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