Playoff Preview: Eyes On The Prize

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After 189 grueling matches, we get to the real stuff. Only eight teams and nine matches remain before the end of the season. With the end of the season counting down, the importance of every game picks up exponentially, and we get to see the best teams left in the competition go all out in their quest to become Champions. Successful campaigns got these eight teams here, now it’s up to them to prove that they are worthy and that they can go all the way. Everyone will be aiming to follow Leeds Rhinos as champions, but I don’t think the Rhinos want to let their grasp go just yet. 

There’s been a fair amount of criticism of the new playoff format, and it’s not hard to understand why. In allowing a top eight format, over half the teams to make it past the end of the season including a Catalan Dragons side who have actually lost more matches than they’ve won. Many people prefer letting the league table decide the champion, and at the very least it’s hard to deny that this new system could devalue the final league table. I think the idea of a side losing more games than they win during the season potentially being League champions is a disconcerting one for many people. 

Even so, allowing so many teams into the playoffs isn’t that big of a deal in my opinion. For one thing, there are many playoff systems throughout the world which allow half the teams or over (the NRL for one, the NBA and the NHL both do it as well). Secondly, the odds are firmly stacked against the teams in the lower four positions and clearly stacked in favour of the top two sides (who get a bye week if the win their opening game). It’s worth pointing out that they’ve got their league positions for a reason, and if any side wins the playoffs from eighth spot, they deserve it because it’ll be a hell of an achievement (quick tangent, but here’s a nice article by RL historian extraordinaire Sean Fagan about the Australian models – as you can see, only one side has ever done it from fifth).

In fact, I really like the playoff system moving to eight teams, for the following reasons:

  • By making it a top eight instead of a top six, the race for the playoffs stayed interesting until the final round. 
  • The current system opens up the competition a lot more. I think we’ll see more teams reaching the Grand Final from 3rd or 4th place in the future. I really like the concept of four teams in semi-finals the week before the Grand Final, instead of having one team dawdling about having already qualified. Okay, so that could potentially mean a minor devaluation of league positions, but it also could end this monopoly Leeds and Saints have on the Grand Final).
  • It means more matches, and more importantly more meaningful games, and this in turn leads to potential for more coverage of the game. In case you hadn’t noticed, there will be four televised games on Sky over the weekend. The only other time that happens is Magic Weekend.  I’d really like to see Super League and Sky have a tailor made playoff marketing campaign.

The new part of the format that I’m not convinced about is this ‘pick your opponent’ gimmick for the semi-finals. My main problems with it are that a) it seems a bit tacky and b) it seems a bit pointless, as I very much doubt anyone will chose any opponents other than the lowest-ranking ones. I think Justin Morgan even said he thought the side getting the pick would come out and say this during their bye-week before their opponents could be determined, which would completely undermine the suspense element of this plan. I’m willing to give it a shot, but I remain skeptical. 

But anyway, it won’t detract from what should be an exciting playoffs with several intriguing plotlines: Wigan’s revival and Brian Noble’s playoff record; Castleford’s aiming to repeat former glories; Wakefield aiming to cap off a tough season with success; Catalans continuing the French interest;  Huddersfield and Hull KR attempting to prove they are true contenders; Saints trying for one last hurrah; Leeds aiming to become only the third ever side to three-peat the league title, and the first in the Supe League era. In the playoffs the hits get bigger, the runs get quicker, the pressure gets more intense, the drama becomes that much greater, because success means that much more. I can’t wait.

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