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The NRL’s Wildcard Weekend is making heads explode

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Expert
5th March, 2019
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1573 Reads

It’s a gimmick that rewards mediocrity! A shameless money grab! The worst idea the NRL has ever had!

So read the knee-jerk reactions to this week’s announcement that the league was maybe thinking about possibly implementing a Wildcard Weekend in 2020.

The proposed setup would see teams finishing seventh to tenth playing off for the final two places in the eight-team finals series.

Looking at the early responses, apparently I’m the only person on the planet outside of NRL HQ who thinks it could be a good thing.

Is it a gimmick? Of course it’s a gimmick. Everything’s a gimmick. This one’s designed to keep interest going in a season that can flag towards its end. To keep bums planted in stadiums and on couches instead of wandering out to see how high the lawn grew between March and August.

It’s the first time a major code has floated this idea in Australia and you can guarantee other leagues are watching on keenly because they want to do it themselves.

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I love the idea because it would work. People would stay engaged. Ratings and crowds wouldn’t drop away as the NRL data has indicated and you can guarantee the games would rate off the charts.

The proposal also lends itself to conversations about shortening the regular season, which I’ve argued before. As it stands, 25 rounds is about five too many. Fewer games means every round matters more. Players will be fresher, quality of play better. One day I’ll stop going on about this, but that day isn’t today.

Wildcard Weekend could also be a precursor for a conference system, but that’s a discussion for another time. Bank that outrage for later.

As for the ‘rewarding mediocrity’ crowd, it’s hardly a leap of logic to say that clubs finishing between seventh and tenth have the same minimal chance at winning the premiership. You could even slide the clubs finishing fifth and sixth in there too, so dominant have the top four been in winning the grand final. So where’s the harm?

Taking the argument further, you could say having a top eight in a 16-team competition rewards mediocrity. In fact, having a finals system at all rewards mediocrity, because it gives teams who are clearly not the best over the season an undeserved shot at the title.

The only definitive way to avoid rewarding all this mediocrity is to give the premiership to the team on top of the standings after the final round, like the big football leagues around the world. Is that what you’d prefer?

Raiders Jack Wighton looks on

(AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Canberra finishing 2018 in tenth with a 10-14 record is being used as proof the proposed system is ridiculous but so what? Canberra would have played St George Illawarra and likely been beaten, so no big deal. In any event, using one discreet example for 100 per cent of your argument is pointless. Let’s look back further.

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In 2016, Wests Tigers finished ninth by one point. In 2014, the teams finishing eight, nine and ten were tied on 28 points, one game behind seventh, who had 30. Why not let them have a final crack?

The Raiders went 10-14 and finished tenth in 2015, 2017 and 2018 (and also had a 10-14 record for 13th place in 2013). Would they have made an impact on the finals? Probably not, but it’s an interesting thought.

Variations on the ‘play-off game’ theme have happened before. In 1988, the Balmain Tigers played Penrith for the last finals spot in the top five after they finished the regular season tied on points. In 1989, Cronulla flogged the Broncos to determine fifth spot.

Incidentally, Balmain’s 1988 team caught fire and drove all the way to the grand final, losing to Canterbury (with thanks to Terry Lamb’s destruction of Ellery Hanley).

Another common argument being made against Wildcard Weekend is that we would have a ten-team finals series – we wouldn’t. The finals series remains eight teams and if your mob is good enough, they wouldn’t need to play a wildcard game.

As for this whole idea being a shameless money grab, I’d hope so. I’d be more than slightly concerned if the NRL weren’t constantly looking at new ways to bring in more cash.

But we can’t ignore the timing of the announcement. It couldn’t have been a more transparent effort from head office to divert attention from the steady stream of players falling over themselves to get parked by the brand new ‘no-fault stand-down’ policy.

If you think this announcement was rushed out to distract from that stuff you’d be a hundred per cent correct. But what did you expect? That the NRL would happily just let the horror off-season coverage roll on? It’s PR 101 to divert attention from bad things.

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Step back, take a breath, have a proper think. Does the announcement that the league is considering a Wildcard round really warrant the hysterics we’ve seen?

Seriously, the NRL could announce today that they’re using their recently announced $46 million surplus to save bush football, wipe all the clubs’ debts, put every game on free-to-air and buy everyone’s mum a lovely bunch of flowers, and people would still react as if Todd Greenberg drove through their front fence, did some doughnuts on their front lawn, kicked their dog, then took off with their partner.

It’s all so out of proportion. There’ll be plenty of stuff to blow up about during the season. Save your outrage for something genuinely deserving of it.

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