Saturday, September 29, 2012

I'm Only Happy When It Rains

So sang Garbage, once upon my youth.

It's a song that could also be associated with fans of Leeds Rhinos, given the team's propensity to raise it's performance at this traditionally inclement time of year.

Friday saw the Rhinos book their fifth visit to Old Trafford for the Super League Grand Final in the last six years with a win over Wigan Warriors. It was a game which demonstrated all that was best about rugby league - bruising, enthralling, total commitment from first whistle to final hooter.

You would think such a game would be the catalyst for widespread praise to be heaped on the game, particularly from those already working within it. Alas, this is rugby league. That kind of thing doesn't happen here. No sooner had the game finished, than the knives were out for the current play-off system.

Super League has decided its champions by a play-off system at the end of the regular season since 1998. Prior to 1974, it had also been the accepted system for deciding the rugby league champions. The period inbetween when the league table decided the champions was a break from tradition for the sport.

At various times since 1998, the play-offs have been contested between the top five, top six and currently the top eight clubs at the end of the weekly rounds. Since the league expanded to 14 clubs, it's been the top eight that have gone into the play-offs with a chance of lifting the SL trophy at Old Trafford in October.

Between 1998 and 2010, the Grand Final was contested exclusively between clubs who finished either first, second or third during the weekly rounds. Last year, the Rhinos bucked the trend and finished fifth before going on to victory in the Grand Final, beating the first and fourth placed clubs away from home before triumphing over third placed St Helens.

Leeds finished fifth again this season, and to get to the Grand Final have beaten eighth placed Wakefield at home, before going to fourth placed Catalan Dragons and first placed Wigan and winning both games. Apparently, this now means that the play-off format is flawed and needs to be changed. Some of their performances during the weekly rounds have been miles away from those they have produced in the play-offs, leading some to conclude that there's no point in even trying for the first 27 weeks. Just wait for the playoffs to get going and throw all your energy and effort at those last few weeks.

The weekly rounds have now in effect become a qualifying competition, bit like those for the World Cup or European Championships in football. Nobody derides those as being "meaningless", in the way that some rugby league fans and writers have been doing since last night. The trophies are then getting handed out at the finals themselves, not an uncommon occurence in sport.

The better you do in that qualifying competition, the higher your seeding in the finals and the easier your route to the big prize. Finish atop the table after 27 weeks and you will have home advantage during the playoffs coupled with a second bite at the cherry should you lose. Finish eighth, and you're faced with going away from home against much better sides and no safety net. Any coach who says they don't want their team to finish as high as possible up the table and get as easy a route to Old Trafford as they can is telling you porkies.

This current Leeds Rhinos side is freakish. Its ability to peak at just the right time defies all logic and history from the rest of the play-offs since 1998. That they have achieved something beyond the abilities of every other club in the last 15 years should not, on its own, be cause for throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Monday, September 24, 2012

From Wayne Bennett to Wallace Arnold


In rugby league, like in any other sport, they divide opinion amongst fans of their particular teams. Nowhere at the moment is that division more apparent however than in the case of Brian McDermott and fans of Leeds Rhinos.

Approaching the end of his second season in charge, McDermott has had a total of seven trophies to compete for. Of these, he's won two (the 2012 World Club Challenge and 2011 Super League Grand Final), still has a chance of winning a third and has finished runner-up in two (the 2011 and 2012 Challenge Cup finals).

It's a record that stands comparison with any other coach in the competition over the same period. Yet there is still a loud rumble of discontent from many Leeds fans about both performances and results.

Why? Simply put, Leeds fans have been spoiled rotten. Prior to McDermott, under the coaching of Tony Smith and Brian McLennan, Leeds were the dominant side in the competition - at least when it came to winning Grand Finals and World Club Challenges.

The emergence of an outstanding crop of young local players early in the last decade, coupled with some astute signings from overseas and other SL clubs, made Leeds the team to beat. Grand Final winners four times in six years between 2004 and 2009, they set the standard for all else to follow.

Sport however, is cyclical. Leeds were never going to remain the dominant side for ever. As the team began to age, its ability to raise its game every week of every season began to fade. There have been some frankly embarrasing results at the hands of the likes of Wigan, Warrington, St Helens and Huddersfield, yet in big knockout games they have been able to turn the form book on its head.

So how much of what a team does is down to its coach? As much as the man in the stand and his staff can do during the week, once the players cross the line the coach is virtually helpless in terms of influencing individual performance. He can maximise it by making the most of his interchanges or make tweaks to strategy, but he can't make tackles, put out passes or kick goals. He's very much at the mercy of his players.

In some cases, in my opinion, the Leeds players have let their coach and fans down over the last couple of years. Conversely, they have also pulled out results that neither coach nor fans had a right to expect, the Challenge Cup semi-final against Wigan in 2012 being a case in point.

The received wisdom on forums seems to be that when a team wins, it's down to the players. When a team loses, it's down to something the coach did wrong. I'm reminded of the comments of great Australian coach Wayne Bennett, who said "If you start listening to the fans, it won't be long before you're sitting with them".