What exactly is a Penalty Try in Rugby Union & how is it scored?

A penalty try is awarded after foul play prevents a probable try from being scored. Typically penalty tries are awarded close to the defending teams tryline and often after sustained pressure. The attacking team is awarded 7 points automatically and does not have to attempt the conversion (prior to 2017, the attacking team had to convert the try from infront of the posts).

What is the sanction for a penalty try?

World Rugby states in law 8: Scoring A penalty try is

awarded between the goal posts if foul play by the opposing team prevents a probable try from being scored, or scored in a more advantageous position. A player guilty of this must be cautioned and temporarily suspended or sent off. No conversion is attempted.

World Rugby Law 8: Scoring

Beyond the 7 points often a yellow card is awarded to the defending player who commits the offence, in serious instances of foul play this can be upgraded to a straight red card. However, although the law cleary states that the offending player should be sanctioned, these regularly go unidentified and no sanction other than the penalty try takes place.

What are the most common penalty try offences?

Collapsing the maul is by far the most regular offence that incurs penalty tries. Which is hardly surprising given the preference for lineout mauls as an offensive weapon in the opponents 22. In days gone by you would regularly see teams opt for a 5 metre scrum which had the added benefit of tieing up the oppposition forwards in the scrum. As scrum penalty decisions have become more unpredictable, we see less and less of the top teams attempting a pushover try, opting for the ‘percentage’ lineout maul, or over the last couple of seasons particularly, the tap and go.

Luke Cowan-Dickie deloberate knock on
Luke Cowan-Dickie deliberately knocks the ball forward against Scotland in 2022.

Another regular source of penalty tries would be deliberate knock ons. A major cause of these would be attacking cross field kicks, so often the attacking option when a team finds themselves with a penalty advantage in the opponents 22. Which is exactly the thankless situation that Luke Cowan-Dickie found himself in the Six Nations in 2022 against Scotland, handing Scotland a way back into the game and his subsequent yellow card, ultimately the victory.

High/dangerous tackles are also a consistent source of penalty tries, again perhaps due to changes in how the tackle is refereed. Though it tends to be dangerous tackles rather than high specifically that get called as penalty tries.

Most controversial penalty tries

It would be reasonable to expect that there would be numerous examples of controversial penalty try decisions, but as is often the way in sport, the controversy tends to surround the decisions that aren’t given rather than those that are. This is very much the case with penalty tries, particularly in the modern game having such scrutiny over decisions and the TMO with access to more and more unimaginable angles.

For one of the more memorable of penalty try decisions we have to go back, way back, to 1983. Welshman Clive Norling was referee in a tour game between Australia and Angentina, Mark Ella was barely passed his own half way line before his pass to Simon Poidevin was knocked on by what Clive Norling deemed to be the ‘last line’ of the Argentinian defence. Eyebrows were raised and its fair to say that with todays technology the try would not have stood.

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