Ahead of the NRL finals kicking off this weekend, there have been calls for the whole system to be overhauled after the 10-14 Titans made the eight.
Add in the seventh-placed Knights’ differential of -143 and the fact there’s a three-win difference between them and the sixth-placed Eels, and calls for a six-team playoff series seem reasonable.
It’s also worth mentioning that the NRL is a 16-team comp, meaning half the teams get to play finals footy.
So on the face of it, we’ve got too many teams given a crack at hoisting the Provan-Summons Trophy.
But I get the distinct impression people are letting the past two seasons colour their entire outlook on the finals system. And these two years were dramatically affected, 2020 by COVID and 2021 by rule changes that have seen some teams basically unable to compete.
When we look at the broader picture though, the finals as they are work pretty well.
Let me get this right: you want fewer quality-games?
You want to hear something scary? There are only nine games of footy left for 2021.
Nine games. That’s just one more than we see over the course of a single round.
Yet there are people out there who want us to have even fewer?
A six-team finals series would likely see teams one and two have the first week off, before facing the winners of three vs six and four vs five respectively, with the winners of those games facing off in the grand final.
So September rolls around and we’d have a grand total of five matches left to look forward to until the following March.
That’s four fewer matches in total and the whole thing wrapped up a week earlier than present.
I have a question: who the hell are the people suggesting this as a preferred method and who hurt them?
These sadomasochists’ pleasures aside, do you honestly think the broadcasters want this? A six-team finals system means four fewer opportunities to sell ads – and ads that are going to be seen by a larger audience than any other round of the year, because every game has legitimate stakes, thereby meaning they demand a higher price.
Eight in the finals series is the absolute minimum number of teams, because the people holding the purse strings aren’t going to give up four games that command a higher price from advertisers – and, as a result, fatter paycheques for the NRL itself.
There is absolutely a discussion worth having around the idea that fewer NRL games per year could actually make the TV product worth more money, but the place to trim is mid-year, when State of Origin is having a negative impact on the week-to-week competition, not finals games, dummy.
This is a new competition – and that means anything can happen
The idea that only six teams deserve to play finals would have slightly more merit if the games featuring the bottom-placed sides were a guaranteed cakewalk for the teams that came fifth and sixth.
If, year after year, the higher-placed teams had the easiest of passages into the semi-finals and the lower-placed teams barely raised a whimper.
But that has not been the case.
This year marks the tenth season that the NRL has used the current finals system – having ditched the long-maligned McIntyre system ahead of season 2012 – whereby fifth plays eighth and sixth plays seventh in a pair of sudden-death matches first-up.
In the nine years we have as example, team seven or eight have made it through at least until the second week on four occasions. What’s more, of those four occasions, we’ve twice seen a bottom-two team make the grand final, with another team getting knocked out in the prelim in a third year.
It’s not a statistical slam-dunk, I’ll admit, but you can’t just dismiss teams seven and eight out of hand as being unworthy of playing in the finals when one of them upsets the higher-placed team and, at least, makes the second week of the finals roughly half the time.
They may not have come close to winning the JJ Giltinan Shield, but that comp is now over and the only real point of it – as evidenced by the relatively piddling prize money and the amount of players Melbourne rested last weekend – is to get into the eight and then see what you can really do.
What’s more, when a team ranked seventh or eighth hits September and goes on a tear – which has happened on average once every three years in the current format – it’s a lot more fun for fans of the teams that didn’t make the finals, because they’d rather see the underdog get up than yet another grand final between the usual suspects.
Ultimately, keeping fans interested is the name of the game, because it keeps more TVs on and more ad revenue pouring in. While the current administration seems to think relentless changing of the rules is the way to keep fans interested, I’m a traditionalist who believes rugby league fans just want to watch a team they support win (or a team they hate lose).
And how interested are most supporters going to be if we only have a top-six finals system?
How many fans deserve hope?
Heading into last weekend, three teams were still in a position to secure eighth place – the Raiders, Sharks and Titans, who were placed in that order on the ladder.
Then, after the Raiders got rumbled and the Sharks went down swinging, the Gold Coast’s finals destiny was in their own hands, all they needed to do was win by 11. This meant that by the time kick-off was blown on Sunday afternoon, the Titans vs the Warriors game was arguably the most-hyped match of the round – certainly one that was worth tuning in for, even for the neutrals.
And only a week prior to that, there were three other sides – the Warriors, Dragons and Tigers – who still had a mathematical chance of playing in the finals.
That’s seven sets of fans who still had hope of seeing their team play knock-out footy as late as the penultimate round of the regular season – because even then, seventh-placed Newcastle weren’t a lock.
If we were playing a top-six format, it would have been completely locked in – not even a mathematical chance for any other side – the week before. And a number of weeks prior to that, only the Knights would have been in the conversation based on the hope that teams above them would lose games.
We would have effectively had ten sets of fans who could put a line through their season by about the end of Round 19, in mid-July. Granted, Broncos and Bulldogs fans were already in that situation then, but someone’s got to come last, and tends to be we know which of a handful of teams that will be by the halfway mark of every year.
Is it really such a horrible system that gives most fans at least a faint hope of playing finals footy for most of the season?
And again, it comes back to eyes on TV screens. How many more eyeballs do you think are watching when a team can make the eight, versus being in a meaningless scrap to place somewhere between seventh and sixteenth for a quarter of a season?
When it all shakes out though, the best team in the finals series wins the big prize – and, as has been pointed out ad nauseam, no team outside the top four has won the grand final in the NRL era.
An eight-team finals system doesn’t rob the worthy.
But it does give a bit of hope to us poor fools who spend our lives hopelessly getting behind a lost cause.
I believe we’re known as ‘rugby league fans’.