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Premiership Play-offs


By Ian Todd
August 2 2015

To keep the site active I have to update the front page regularly and this can be tricky in the off-season.  I’ve decide to continue my theme about play-offs.  One of the examples thrown out by proponents of play-off systems is the Aviva Premiership.  The argument is along the lines of: if deciding the Premiership Champions by play-off is okay then why isn’t the same true for the Championship.  The counter-argument is that the play-offs in the Premiership were introduced in order to compensate for the loss of players to national sides over the course of the season.  The more cynical amongst us harbour suspicions that it also serves a money-generating purpose, but let us concentrate of the ostensible reason.

Before looking at this question I’d first like to consider an incident from this season’s final: Owen Farrell’s ‘tackle’ on Anthony Watson.  In my opinion it was both high and not really a tackle.  It deserved at least a yellow card, and we have all seen red cards for lesser (or unproven) offences.  Watson was shortly after forced from the pitch as a direct result.  Can anyone seriously argue that these split second decisions, or failures to make a decision, did not have an effect on the outcome of the game?  A red card to a player who was named man of the match?  Another first choice player remaining on?  This is an example, par excellence, of the way in which a one off game can be disproportionately affected by very fine margins that would be averaged out over a longer series of games.

The issue of whether or not the Premiership play-offs really do compensate for the loss of players to national duties is actually quite a complex one and, to be honest I don’t really have the time to devote to it for a full analysis.  You would have to look at what players were taken away and in what numbers; you would have to form judgements on relative strengths, lots of other areas.  I have just had a rather quick and brutal look at last season and the clubs that finished in the top four.  Before the autumn internationals they played six games with Saints winning 83% of their games down to Leicester only managing a 50% ratio.  In that time they actually played each other a few times and that ought really to be taken into account as well.

Do we see a change in their performance over the course of the autumn internationals?  Well actually we do, although the sample size is rather small.  B**h go from winning just two thirds of their matches to winning all of them and Saracens don’t win any.  Actually, they did manage a draw, but that was against Leicester who managed to improve over the international break.

Then a move into the games before the Six Nations.  All of the clubs did better than they did before the AI’s (except poor old Leicester who dropped back to the same win:loss ratio).  Saints weren’t quite as effective but both the other two were better than before, winning three-quarters of their games.  All of them except B**h were better post AI than they were during it.  However during the 6Ns Saints continued to perform as well as they had beforehand, as did Saracens.  B**h have a real drop in form, winning just one game and Tigers win them all.

This is hugely simplistic, but for just last season there does at first glance seem to be something going on during international periods.  Leicester did better both times around which may say something about how many players they lost to national duties relative to the other sides that finished in the top four.  Saints performed consistently well as you might expect of a side that finished top of the league.  B**h showed a big variation, winning all games in the AIs and losing most of them in the 6Ns.  Saracens didn’t win any in the AIs and won three quarters during the 6Ns, but then again that’s exactly as they did between the two international breaks.

Does it really mean anything though?  It is tempting to wonder if a side like Leicester actually benefited from the international breaks and whether the fact that the two sides who ended up in the play-off final and showed the biggest variation in results during the international periods actually had the cause of that variation addressed by having the play-offs.  Of course both Saracens had a shocker over the AI’s and B**h did the same during the 6N’s so only one of the two breaks had an apparent effect for each side.  Then again the autumn break is much shorter than the Six Nations period so we might expect to see more variation.  Overall, performance at the start of the season is actually very close to performance at the end of the season and it is only Saracens poor record in the autumn internationals that makes a real difference.  So on the basis of just one season and discounting a huge number of factors the fact that we ended up with a B**h v Saracens final might actually be related to the international periods negatively impacting Premiership performance and that the side worst affected rightly came out on top as a result of a play-off system.  Essentially, two sides played worse over the international periods and it was those two that ended up in the Premiership final.  I’m not convinced at all and there really needs to be some proper work done.  I’m not sure I’m going to do it though!  Of course a much more logical solution would be to halt the league season during the international breaks but that is far too sensible.  And leads me back to the money-spinning suspicion.

UPDATE

I have looked at call-ups for the 2015 Six Nations and, whilst I may have missed a few and I can’t be bothered to look back at the injury records, I’ve picked up most of them.  What I see is that almost 60 players got called up for the 6Ns from English clubs (not necessarily for England of course) and that over 60% of those players came from just four clubs.  Care to have a guess which four clubs?  That’s right, the four clubs who finished in the top four in the Premiership!  In fact three had nine players called up and the other eight.  Now, what does that actually tell us?  If you want to be tough about it, it might tell you that the clubs that ‘suffer’ most from players being taken away on international duty don’t really suffer at all because they are still end up as the top four sides.  Ok, you might say that Farrell got called up and was promptly injured for the entire Championship and I think the same was true of Parling, and I think Wilson was similar.  But in that case they were missing from their clubs anyway.  So, the play-offs are intended to compensate for players missing club duties because they are instead playing for their national side but the sides that lose the most players are the sides that make up the top four anyway and then go into the play-offs.  That doesn’t seem quite right does it?  I suppose you might say that the play-offs allow those clubs to mess around amongst themselves but they were essentially equally disadvantaged during the 6Ns, so why bother? 

Shall I have a look at other years?  Season 13/14 – Saracens and Saints finish first and second in the league and I wonder if you know which two side had the first and second most call ups?  I think you are catching on!  Oh, and the club with the most call-ups won the play-offs.   Go on, have a stab at 12/13.  Spot on, top four in call ups fill the top four places and the club with the most call-ups won the play-offs.  I don’t think I need to hammer this point much more really.  I think what I am seeing here is that the clubs with the most call-ups don’t suffer in the league and the one that ‘suffers’ the most wins the play-offs.  This probably means we don’t need the play-offs as a compensatory mechanism and they are, after all, a money spinning wheeze.

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