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...

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