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NRL finals system provides one little quirk

Luke Doherty Roar Guru

By Luke Doherty, Luke Doherty is a Roar Guru


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    Rabbitohs fans - are they in danger of getting too overconfident? (AAP Image/Action Photographics, Robb Cox)

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    One point of discussion that has been missing from the sound track of this finals campaign has been the once annual debate around the finals system used by the NRL.

    The McIntyre system had few allies by the end of its time and it was promptly consigned to the waste bin by the Australian Rugby League Commission.

    The method used by the AFL was introduced and as it stands, we have the top four teams still in the competition fighting it out for a spot in the grand final.

    So, it was surprising to hear a talkback caller to the Sports Today program on 2UE last night question the mechanics of the new system.

    He asked why Melbourne, who finished second, now have a seemingly easier match by playing Manly, who finished fourth, to get into the grand final.

    The Bulldogs, minor premiers, have to play South Sydney, who finished third.

    Now, on the surface it appears as though Melbourne actually has the tougher match.

    Manly, despite finishing fourth, went into their match in week one of the finals against the Bulldogs as the favourites.

    South Sydney seems like an easier clash for the Bulldogs despite the fact they finished ahead of the Sea Eagles on the ladder.

    The Rabbitohs were out-classed by Melbourne in week one of the finals and then were always going to get the better of Canberra in Sydney at the weekend.

    So, even though this system is far better than the one previously employed by the league, are there a few quirks?

    Is their a perfect answer? 

    In theory, shouldn’t the highest placed team have the easiest possible route through to the decider?

    If that was the case the Bulldogs would be playing Manly again this weekend in a repeat of their clash from week one.

    Some would argue that taking on the Sea Eagles would be a tougher test for the Dogs even though they finished below South Sydney on the ladder.

    Others could say it would be boring seeing the same two teams face off in the space of three weeks.

    Although a re-match between Manly and Canterbury wouldn’t be a tough sell this year, would a repeat of 1 versus 4 be a tough sell in the future?

    Team three seeming weaker than team four has created a quirk this year and Dogs fans are probably breathing a sigh of relief that they don’t have to come up against their rivals again this weekend.

    Under the current set-up, the team finishing first on the ladder would only get to face a weaker opponent in the preliminary final if an upset occurred in week two.

    For example, if Canberra (6th) beat South Sydney they would play the Bulldogs while Melbourne (second) would play either Manly (4th) or North Queensland (5th).

    The finals have been an amazing spectacle and rugby league looks set for an unprecedented period of growth and prosperity, but it will be interesting to see if this little quirk causes a stir in the future.

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    The Crowd Says (39)

    • September 20th 2012 @ 6:18am
      Mark Roth said | September 20th 2012 @ 6:18am | ! Report

      People have been complaining about the probability of unbalanced matches in the AFL for years. The general consensus seems to be that rematches before the Grand Final are to be avoided at all costs. I don’t buy it. They could accept the rematch. Or they could play 1v 3 and 2 v 4 in the first week instead of the third. Or they could send the lowest placed team to to face the highest ranked preliminary final host and let rematches happen when they do.

      I have a bigger set of problems that no one seems to care about, not that I really want the old system back.

      Firstly, if either Melbourne or Canterbury had lost in the first week (but not both), we would have the minor premiers facing the runner up just to see which one of the two gets to go to the Grand Final. I believe, please correct me if I am wrong, that that is happening this weekend at the MCG. Why does no in power see this as a problem?

      Secondly, a specific set of problems that are created by the NRL’s policy of locating finals. If Canberra or Newcastle (or to a lesser extent Gold Coast) finish 3rd or 4th and then win in week one, they will never get a home final. Hypothetically, if Canberra had raced to finish 4th they would have played Canterbury in Sydney the first week of the finals. Had they won that game, their reward would be playing Manly in Sydney this weekend.

      • September 20th 2012 @ 10:43am
        Ken said | September 20th 2012 @ 10:43am | ! Report

        Yeah people saw those reasons which is why an almost identical system was dumped when it was used back in the 90’s. It’s just that people forgot about the quirks in this system and were complaining so hard about the quirks of the McIntyre system that the ARLC thought it would be a good move to get people on side with the new commission.

        Personally I preferred the weekend suspense of the McIntyre system and all it’s possible permutations, despite my team getting tough deals a couple of times. I don’t really consider it a big issue though, if you keep beating the teams you’re drawn against you’ll hold the trophy four weeks later regardless of the system.

        • September 20th 2012 @ 11:24am
          kid said | September 20th 2012 @ 11:24am | ! Report

          This finals sytems has it all over macintyre. Teams and fans had no idea what they were playing for last year it was good in theory but at the end of friday night everyone was left wondering what the result actually meant. The mismatched games were not only on ability but also the prize. Team 1s prize was a week off where as team 8s prize was survival. This year is so much better with both teams going head to head for the one prize.

          I don’t see any quirks with this final system. To win the comp teams 1-4 need to win 3 in a row against the best teams teams 5-8 need to win 4 in a row. The winner of this comp will deserve the title (unless we had referee issues…. sorry).

          • September 20th 2012 @ 1:56pm
            Ken said | September 20th 2012 @ 1:56pm | ! Report

            Luke’s article and Mark’s comment both detail a number of quirks, they do exist. My pet one is actually momentum, teams placed 3 & 4 are rewarded by their good result by games against teams 1 & 2 in finals week 1. Teams 5 & 6 get much easier assignments. Yes, I’m well aware the ‘prize’ of those other games is better but if form holds (like it did this year) then teams 3/4 get into the sudden-death second week on the back of potentially demoralising games against the top seeds while 5 & 6 get there with morale boosting victories. This didn’t happen in the McIntyre system.

            ‘To win the comp teams 1-4 need to win 3 in a row against the best teams teams 5-8 need to win 4 in a row. The winner of this comp will deserve the title

            Is this so different to McIntyre? There was a possibility that teams 5/6 could win the title with 3 wins rather than 4 but it didn’t happen in the 10 years the system was in place. The winner of the comp deserving the title? Well in either system if you keep winning you’ll get the title – if fairness was the only concern though we’d probably just award it to the minor premiers, when you look through the records that’s usually the better indicator of which team was the best that year.

          • September 20th 2012 @ 4:08pm
            Renegade said | September 20th 2012 @ 4:08pm | ! Report

            “Teams and fans had no idea what they were playing for”

            They had to win…..if you win your fate is in your own hands – you lose, well tough luck.

            I’m with Ken on this, each match seem as a must win in the old system while this year the week 1 games between the top 4 meant SFA.

            The other point that Ken mentioned was that it was impossible for 1 & 2 to play each other before the GF.

      • September 20th 2012 @ 11:01am
        Nafe said | September 20th 2012 @ 11:01am | ! Report

        I think the problem with the rematch before the grand final may be that the 2 best teams currently don’t make the Grand Final.

        Say for example the 2 most in form teams currently are Manly and Doggies. If there was a rematch, the Grand Final could not include both those sides.

        • September 20th 2012 @ 2:04pm
          Ken said | September 20th 2012 @ 2:04pm | ! Report

          There’s 4 games in week 2 & 3 of the finals, and none of the teams playing each other in any of them can match up again in the Grand Final – any one of those games could contain the two most in-form teams in the comp. Even better, if the most in-form teams in the comp come 6 & 7 in the regular season, one of them goes home the first week! No system is going to change this.
          Whether or not we allow re-matches before the GF doesn’t really affect that as far as I can see.

          • September 20th 2012 @ 2:49pm
            me, I like football said | September 20th 2012 @ 2:49pm | ! Report

            Ken , if you assume the 2 top teams are located in the top 4 then they will play eachother in the GF
            lets say 4 and then 1 are the best sides.

            W1 4 def 1
            W2 1 def 5,8
            W3 1 def 2,3; 4 def 2,3,6,7
            GF 4 v 1

            The top 2 of any combination in the top 4 will always play off in the GF

      • Roar Guru

        September 20th 2012 @ 10:14pm
        apaway said | September 20th 2012 @ 10:14pm | ! Report

        It’s not a problem if they don’t lose. Jeez, lose a game and it gets harder, surely there’s sense in that.

    • September 20th 2012 @ 8:08am
      mushi said | September 20th 2012 @ 8:08am | ! Report

      Agreed Mark why is avoiding rematches more important than rewarding your regular season finish.

      They should re-seed after each round so top plays bottom.

      Luke this has been apparent from the first time you look at the finals draw – if the first two rounds went to seed then second gets the easier knock out game than first. For the people who installed this system to then come out lauding how it rewards your position on the ladder beggars belief.

    • September 20th 2012 @ 8:46am
      Gr8rWeStr said | September 20th 2012 @ 8:46am | ! Report

      If the proof of the proof of the success of a finals system is that the top 4 of the end of season ladder are the last 4 teams standing why not just have a top 4 finals series?

      I’m an unabashed fan of the McIntyre system, particularly the first weekend of matches. No system is perfect and even the McIntyre system could benefit with tweaking following on from the first week, especially if ‘upsets’ occur.

      In a knock out draw the ideal semi-finals match-up is theoretically, 1v4 and 2v3, giving the 1st placed team the most likely win and maximizing the chances of a close Grand Final match. As it now stands we have 1v3 and 2v4, after no ‘upsets’, in the NRL and 1v2 and 3v4 in the AFL, because 3rd beat 2nd in the first week of finals.

      The competing ideas are the higher finishing team playing the lower finishing team, theoretically giving them the more likely win, although this doesn’t always work out in practice and maximizing possible ‘Grand Final’ combinations, a huge advantage of the McIntyre system was that any combination of teams playing in week 1 of the finals could play in the Grand Final. Not replaying previous finals matches is about maximizing possible Grand Final combinations not difficulty selling repeat matches.

    • September 20th 2012 @ 8:47am
      TC said | September 20th 2012 @ 8:47am | ! Report


      Whenever discussion of finals systems comes round at this time of year, as it usually does, I will often point out this quirk that you have mentioned in this article.

      And as you mention in the 2nd last paragraph, it’s almost a 50/50 chance that the minor premier ends up playing the 2nd best team in the comp in the 2nd last week, while 3rd and 4th end up the other preliminary final – and that is the one big weakness of the present finals system (now used by both the AFL and NRL).

      Over the years, I have thought up two possible solutions:

      First week of finals starts off as 1 v 3, 2 v 4, etc, so if wins go by ranking you end up in th 2nd last week of finals with 1 v 4 and 2 v 3 (although that is not guaranteed), and then there is altogether different system which looks tougher in the first week, but delivers a better outcome over the following two weeks.

      First week of finals is 1 v 2, 3 v 4, 5 v 6, 7 v 8

      At first glance it might look unfair that 1 v 2 play in the first week, but the big benefit, is that the loser would meet the winner of 7 v 8 for a spot in the preliminary final.

      Also, in this system, it’s impossible for 1 v 2 to knock each other out before the grand final, which was also a plus of the old McIntyre 8.

      Anyway, all systems have pluses and minuses – there is no perfect solution.


      • September 21st 2012 @ 12:00am
        Mark Roth said | September 21st 2012 @ 12:00am | ! Report

        If its 1 v 2, 3 v 4, 5 v 6, 7 v 8 in the first week, you’d have a lot of unfairness in the system.

        The loser of 1 v 2 has to play away should they make the preliminary final, while a lower placed team automatically gets a home preliminary final. Also, 6 not only never gets a home final, they have to play 5 in an elimination game while 7 gets to play 8 in a sudden death match at home.

    • September 20th 2012 @ 9:11am
      turbodewd said | September 20th 2012 @ 9:11am | ! Report

      The current finals system kills crowds. I mean surely at playoff time they should all be sellouts, or damn close. Only the Cron @ Canb game came close.

      Wk 1
      Souths @ Melb – 19,000 – capacity 28,000 fair crowd
      Bris @ NQld – 21,000 – capacity 28,000 good crowd
      Cron @ Canb – 24,000 – capacity 26,000 very good crowd
      Manly v Bulldogs – 35,000 – capacity 80,000 fair crowd (2 Syd teams in Syd)

      It ruins atmosphere and credibility when crowds are so so. These crowds werent poor, but could have been better. You cant expect a fan to attend so many consecutive games in consecutive weeks. NRL fans complain about ticket prices and pick n choose which games they attend.

      SOLUTION: all games should be sudden death, perhaps just a top 7 so that the minor premier is rewarded with a week off.

      7 @ 2
      6 @ 3
      5 @ 4

      4 @ 1
      3 @ 2

      1 vs 2

      • September 20th 2012 @ 1:40pm
        Smile said | September 20th 2012 @ 1:40pm | ! Report

        Mate you really need to get over this “people only care if it is sudden death”. It’s rubbish.

        If the Rabbits had have played the Bulldogs in round one of the finals people would have flocked there en masse, with the winner being one win away from the GF and the loser facing sudden-death.

        The current system is the best solution. None of the games have been certainties, from memory only the Cowboys have been under $1.50 and that was due to the Broncos being duds. This years match-ups have been awesome. I didn’t mind the McIntyre system but I would prefer to watch 1 v 4 than 1 v 8.

        The current system is not perfect and to complain that Melbourne have an advantage by playing team 4 instead of 3 is nit-picking at it’s best.

        Intersting that all the higher ranked team has won every game in the NRL finals, whilst in the Toyota cup I think it’s the opposite.

    • September 20th 2012 @ 9:20am
      NF said | September 20th 2012 @ 9:20am | ! Report


      You honestly cannot expect every playoff game to be a sellout automatically even if it was sudden death I doubt the crowds will all turn to sell outs all of sudden some food for thought.

      • September 20th 2012 @ 10:16am
        turbodewd said | September 20th 2012 @ 10:16am | ! Report

        of course, but we can definitely strive for better crowds. There is definitely room for improvement.

        • September 20th 2012 @ 1:48pm
          Smile said | September 20th 2012 @ 1:48pm | ! Report

          Mate it’s not all about crowds. TV revenue is just as important, if not more important.

          More games = More $

          • Roar Guru

            September 21st 2012 @ 12:08am
            turbodewd said | September 21st 2012 @ 12:08am | ! Report

            You can have both actually, its not hard! Its so easy. RL is a great product, its just gotta broaden its appeal even more.