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.

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