Demands for change have been the consistent theme of this season of rugby league. At various times and for various reasons supporters have clamoured for change to existing fixtures, competitions and events – the Magic Weekend, the mid-season international, the Challenge Cup and so on. It seems fitting then that the season should come to an end with the question of how to re-organise the Super League play-offs (although I’m sure the question of re-organising autumn internationals will swiftly follow the Four Nations).
The criticism is a result of the one-sided nature of the play-offs thus far: of the eight games six were won by a margin of victory of between 32 and 50 points.
Hull KR lost 56-6 to the Catalans Dragons in the first weekend, while the following Sunday the Dragons travelled to Wigan only to suffer a 44-0 mauling at the hands of the Warriors. Wigan’s 18-26 defeat to St Helens was a genuinely thrilling game to watch, while Huddersfield’s attempted comeback against Leeds provided at least an exciting finish to that fixture. For the most part, however, this year’s play-offs have been a dismal affair.
In British rugby league one-sided games have been a problem all season, in the league and the cup. Which is more, the contrast between the Super League play-offs and the far more competitive NRL offering is – to be honest – depressing. It’s no wonder then that people are anxiously seeking a solution to the problem.
The immediate suggestion is to reduce the number of teams in the play-offs: eight, it is argued, is far too many. This is a view I hold, although mainly from a conviction that allowing the entire top half of the league table plus one bottom-half team to enter the championship play-offs is just weird. A top-six play-off might be better, re-adopting the old play-off system, still employed in the Co-operative Championship.
However, this solution doesn’t really solve the problem. After all, Huddersfield Giants were on the receiving end of a 47-0 mauling at Warrington that set the tone for the series so far. The Giants finished fourth, so even a top-four playoff – another suggestion – wouldn’t necessarily improve matters.
Another problem is the ClubCall system that has become deeply unpopular with both coaches and supporters. Despite Sky Sports’ Hemmings and Stephenson trying to ram the thing down our throats on Sunday, ClubCall is just not popular – Warrington coach Tony Smith refused publicly to have anything to do with it. Perhaps the issue for coaches is knowing that, whoever they choose, they hand their opponents instant motivation. In an era in which coaches and players are usually at pains to avoid any hint of over-confidence lest it come back to bite them, ClubCall requires that they publicly announce which of the two teams they think they stand a better chance of beating.
For fans, rather than the excitement and intrigue implied by the way Hemmings and Stephenson presented it, ClubCall always proves to be a dull, predictable affair. Hemmings seemed to think that Warrington would have a tough decision on their hands whether they wanted to play Leeds or Wigan. Surely not – they’re certainly both dangerous teams, but it would have been foolishness for Warrington to elect to play Wigan. The club with decision-making power will always simply choose the lowest-ranked opponents possible.
Is there an obvious solution to any of this? As ever, no. Any solutions offered usually reflect personal preferences rather than pragmatism. For instance, I would favour a situation in which the team finishing top of the table were the league champions, and therefore the play-offs could be conducted as an open draw – a replacement for ClubCall – rather than being constrained by having to recognise league position. Yet this offers its own set of problems, such as the devaluing of the play-offs and Grand Final.
There is a sense in which the real business of the Super League play-offs begins this weekend, and perhaps that’s the best way to look at it. Let’s hope that the games this weekend – two Super League semi finals and the Co-operative Conference and Championship play-off finals – provide the quality and excitement that we know rugby league is capable of providing.
Keep Your Eye on Rugby League