Tuesday, October 31, 2006

One down, four to go?

Great Britain opened their Tri Nations campaign on Saturday with a narrow defeat to New Zealand in Christchurch, in a game that has generated more than its fair share of talking points already.

It turns out that New Zealand fielded Australian-born hooker Nathan Fien on the basis of his supposed Kiwi heritage under the "grandparent" rule, which enables a player not capped by any other country to represent the land of his parents/grandparents even if he wasn't born there. Apparently the relative from the land of the long white cloud whose birth certificate Fien produced was actually his great-grandmother, one generation too far to qualify him for New Zealand and therefore making him ineligible.

It's not clear at the moment whether the NZRL were aware of this and played Fien anyway, or if it was just a genuine administrative error. Usual procedure in most leagues around the world is that points are deducted for fielding an ineligible player, even if it's by accident. Given the way the Kiwis have started this competition with two defeats prior to the win over Great Britain, losing those two points would make the next meeting of the two sides in a fortnight a must win.

If that wasn't enough on its own, Aussie coach Ricky Stuart has chipped in on the subject of foul play, obviously looking to protect the little angels in his own side from any unnecessary fisticuffs. From Saturday's game the two notable incidents involved Adrian "12 seconds" Morley - the first a tackle on Ruben Wiki which started off across the chest then slipped up under the chin putting Wiki on his backside, the second a cuff round the head for Brent Webb in retaliation to a sly elbow. Given that Stuart was Morley's coach at Sydney Roosters prior to taking the Australian job, he'd be hard pushed to complain that he didn't know what to expect particularly in the light of Morley finishing his Roosters career with a lengthy suspension - not the first of his time in the NRL either.

Stuart obviously sees an advantage to his side if the game is kept open and flowing on Saturday, and will have been peeved at the selection of Ashley Klein as referee who he believed kept a very poor 10 metres between the sides in the two games against the Kiwis. His comments would appear to be the first step towards putting pressure on Klein - Aussie born but based in the UK - to referee in a way that favours his side when they meet Great Britain. Hopefully it won't work to influence the way Klein referees, but recent series between the two sides have shown that when the Aussie coaching staff complain about something, British referees have a record of rolling over and complying with their wishes.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Rugby League's Big Night Out

So it's that time of year again - Super League Grand Final day. There's a chance of a new name on the trophy this year as Grand Final virgins Hull FC take on hot favourites and minor premiers St Helens. Hull have just two players with Grand Final experience in their squad - Lee Radford with the Bulls and Chris Chester with Wigan - but will be able to pull on their win in the 2005 Challenge Cup Final, their most recent big game experience.

It's easy to forget that the whole play-off and Grand Final concept has only recently been revived in the sport in this country, starting again in 1998 after two years of deciding the SL title on a "first past the post" basis. The concept had its fair share of critics at the outset, but it's fair to say that most people now recognise it as the "right" way to finish the season for a number of reasons.

The concept of a top five/six playoff isn't new in the UK though. For many years through to the early 1970s, the Championship final was the conclusion to the season. The top clubs at the end of the year played knockout football to decide the competitors and it was winner takes almost all, with the team finishing top of the table after the regular season picking up the league leaders trophy.

Then as now, the fixture schedule was uneven with not all teams playing each other home and away over the course of the year. In that case, as with the NFL and most other US sports, it's impossible to declare a champion based simply on regular season results. Arguments would rage over who had the easier fixtures during the season and how their opponents were handicapped by having tougher opposition. It's fairer to make the sides who had the best records over the season face off against each other to decide who really is the best in the land.

There's also the more modern argument of what the play off concept brings in terms of keeping the season alive for a number of clubs. A club in 7th or 8th but safe from finishing bottom would find the latter half of its season rendered almost meaningless - they were too far away from the top to have genuine title ambitions in first past the post, but weren't fighting for survival either. Under the play off system, these clubs are battling to the end of the season to give themselves an outside chance of making the showpiece finale.

Should the regular SL season ever revert back to playing each other once home and away - a possibility if the league is expanded beyond the current 12 sides - it would be interesting to see if the Grand Final and play off concepts retained the goodwill of fans as a whole. If your club finished as runaway leaders after everyone had played the same schedule, would you be happy with them having to go and do it all again to confirm what they'd proved over the year? A dodgy decision or a couple of injuries here and there could undo a whole season's good work after all...