There’s a danger that the thrills and spills served up by the final two Super League play-off games this season between Warrington and Leeds, and Saints and Wigan, might gloss over the weaknesses in the current top eight system that were all too apparent just a few days earlier.
After all, for the first time ever we got a Grand Final without either of the top two clubs contesting it, so the play-offs must have been a spectacular success, right?
Wrong. Blow-out scores, slumping crowds and the contrivance of a ClubCall that no one cared about, least of all the coach of the club that earned the dubious honour of making the choice saw the business end of the season get underway with all the excitement of a visit to the dentist.
You can’t legislate for great games of the kind that sent Saints and Leeds on their way to Old Trafford, but you can take decisions that will make them more likely rather than less.
I would argue it is time to go back to the original top five play-off format.
At the moment, Super League just does not have the strength in depth to justify a top eight. Okay, in the absence of a relegation dogfight, the expanded play-offs inject a little bit of extra excitement lower down the table, but at what price?
If, for example, Bradford Bulls had managed to string a few late season wins together and sneaked into the eight, their supporters, most of whom had paid just £60 for a season ticket entitling them to watch 13 home games, would have been asked to fork out at least a third of that to watch a single extra play-off game away from home. How many do you think would have turned up? The kind of bargain season ticket deals that clubs promote nowadays leaves the play-offs, which are not included, looking like a very raw deal indeed.
We have to find a way of including play-off games in the cost of a season ticket, even if it involves carrying a credit over to the following year, or an eventual refund for clubs which fail to make the cut.
Our clubs need to be incentivised to promote play-off games, too, and avoid at all costs the kind of situation that saw Wigan coach Michael Maguire bring down the veil of silence on his players in the lead up to a vital game – a game which went on to draw a derisory attendance of just 6,790 to the DW Stadium.
It’s unfair to blame Maguire for that decision: he is a coach, and he will do whatever he thinks is required for his team to be successful. The blame should lay with a system that allows him the freedom to make such a counter-productive decision in the first place.
As editor of a Rugby League publication, of course I have a vested interest in players being available to the media, but ultimately we are all involved in the same business – promoting the sport of Rugby League. It’s hard to do that when not everyone is willing to play ball, and harder still when quality is far too often sacrificed for quantity.
John Drake, Editor
First published in Rugby League World, Issue 367 (Nov 2011)