From The Vaults

07 May 2024
Points Scoring Through The Ages

The early years of rugby union saw no need for points to be awarded as matches were won by whichever side scored most goals from kicks. The first official laws of the Rugby Football Union in 1871 simply stated that 'A match shall be decided by a majority of goals only.'

The most notable exemplar of this flawed system was the drawn match between Royal High School Former Pupils and Edinburgh University in 1872. Both sides converted one of their tries thereby scoring one goal each, hence the final published result was a draw. However Royal High School FP scored eight tries to Edinburgh University's two tries, a clear indication of territorial superiority on the field of play but the High School's kickers must have had an off day.

The number of tries scored only became numerically significant from November 1875, when it was decided that a majority of tries could decide the result of a match if the teams were level on goals scored. The Home Nations championship was inaugurated in 1883 and, following the formation of the International Board (IB) by Ireland, Scotland and Wales in 1886 and the belated joining of the IB by England in December 1889, a formal scoring system was adopted at the end of the decade.

For the 1889-90 season, England, Ireland and Wales awarded one point for a try, two points for converting a try and three points for scoring a drop goal or a goal from a mark. However, Scotland decided to award two points for a try. This produced some interesting anomalies for early statisticians when analysing the scorers during the 1890 set of internationals. Fortunately, the outcomes of the six matches played were not affected by the different scoring systems.

Scotland team, 1891

One year later the system recommended by the International Board was adopted across the four countries and Scotland fell into line by awarding only one point for a try. This did not affect them in any way as 1890-91 remains one of Scotland's greatest seasons in which they won all three matches scoring 38 points including 14 tries and conceding only three points including one try to England.

A British team toured South Africa and played three tests in the summer of 1891 where a try was worth one point and a conversion worth two points, although the second test was won 3-0 by a solitary goal from a mark scored by WG 'Willie' Mitchell, the Richmond and England full back. After twenty minutes of the first half Mitchell made a fair catch from an opposition kick a yard from the '25' flag. As the ball had not touched the ground, he called 'mark' as he caught the ball, having evaded Barry Heatlie the oncoming forward and future Springbok captain. He then dropped what turned out to be the winning goal for the British team.

The development of handling and the introduction of the four-person three-quarter line led to the increase in the UK of the try to two points for the 1891-92 season. Conversions were increasingly important but a successful penalty goal, now raised from two to three points in value, had still not been kicked in international rugby.

England team, 1894

The value of a try was further raised to three points and the conversion reduced from three to two points for the 1893-94 season. The first international match under the new scoring system took place in January 1894 at Birkenhead where England under the captaincy of the legendary RE 'Dicky' Lockwood beat Wales, captained by Arthur Gould an equally great centre three-quarter, resoundingly by 24-3, scoring four tries against one by Wales.

Kicking remained an important skill and the worth of the drop goal in the early years was demonstrated by the fact that more than 25 drop goals were kicked in internationals before the first penalty goal was scored with an historic drop kick by the long-serving Welsh full back Billy Bancroft to win the game against England in 1893.

By the time Australia in 1899 and New Zealand in 1903 had entered the international fray, the scoring system was well entrenched - three points for a try, two for a conversion, three for a penalty goal, four for a drop goal, and four for a goal from a mark.

The goal from a mark remained a rare commodity and only 27 were kicked in more than 1,200 international matches between 1891 and 1977. 14 of these goals were scored before the 1st World War, some of which had a significant impact on the results of individual games as well as ensuring legendary status for some of the kickers. In New Zealand's first ever international against Australia in August 1903, the full back Billy Wallace became the only player to score two goals from a mark in an international match.

England team, 1948

The value of a goal from a mark was reduced from four points to three at the end of the 1904-05 season, but there were to be no other changes to the scoring system until 1948 when the value of the drop goal was reduced from four to three points. The last 4-point drop goal in a match between International Board countries was scored by the French scrum half Yves Bergougnan in a 15-0 win against England in Paris in March 1948.

The increasing proliferation of matches decided by penalty kicks in the 1960s led to the raising of the value of the try from three to four points in 1971. The first international played after this change took place in November 1971 at Stade de Toulouse where Australia beat France by 13 points to 11.

Seldom used in later years, the goal from a mark ceased to exist when the Free Kick clause was introduced for the 1977-78 season as a team may not score points directly from a free kick. The last goal from a mark in an international involving one of the major rugby-playing countries of the time was kicked by the Romanian centre Valeriu Irimescu against France in a losing cause at Beziers in December 1971.

With many matches being decided by expert kickers, the value of a try was raised again from four to five points in 1992 at the annual meeting of the International Rugby Board. The first international five-point try was scored by the All Black winger, Va'aiga Tuigamala, in the fifth minute of the Bledisloe Cup match at the Sydney Football Stadium in July 1992. Both sides scored two tries but Australia won the game narrowly by 16-15, ironically due to the superior goal kicking of their fly half Michael Lynagh.

Despite the many changes in the sport, most notably the development of the Rugby World Cup since 1995, there have been perhaps surprisingly no further changes to scoring values now for more than thirty years during which more than 2,000 international matches have been played.


  • The Book of English International Rugby 1871-1982 - John Griffiths (Willow Books 1982)
  • The Evolution of Scoring - Gill Hagger (World Rugby Museum)
  • A History of the Proceedings of the International Rugby Football Board 1886-1890 - Eric Watts Moses
  • The History of the Laws of Rugby Football - Percy Royds (Walker & Co Ltd 1949)
  • The History of Scottish Rugby - Sandy Thorburn (Johnston & Bacon 1980)
  • The History of the Rugby Football Union - OL Owen (Playfair Books Ltd 1955)
  • Playfair Rugby Annuals (1948-1973) and Rothmans Rugby Yearbooks (1972-2000)

About the Author

A professional musician and arts administrator, Richard Steele has been on the committee of the World Rugby Museum at Twickenham since 2005 and is the co-author of the RFU's 150th anniversary book England Rugby 150 Years.