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Play-offs: help or hindrance?

By IanB
June 17 2013

Back in April we headed off to sunny Bath for the last league away fixture of the season. After the game which saw the home side notching up a ‘W’ against their old rivals, instead of diving into a bar we decided to head off for a meander along the Avon. It will not be a surprise to some to hear that I was suitable armed with camera, and I was quite happily snapping away when I was approached by a couple of Bath supporters:

 “It doesn’t matter how many pictures you take, it won’t change the score!” said one of them with a big, beaming smile. 

What an odd concept, I thought; post match photos to influence a score-line after the final whistle, hmmm – still, I went along with the banter. “Not that bothered about changing the score, to be honest. Even after that, Tigers are still second and have a home draw for the play-offs”. (I was going to add ‘.. but of course, Bath wouldn’t know anything about play-offs’, but thought better of it). Then, knowing the answer already, I asked: “How has that win helped Bath’s season – any closer to qualifying for Europe next year?” Heads kind of dropped accompanied by errs-and-umms and well-not-really’s.

The first of the two Ba’athists then came back with: “You know why they introduced the play-offs, don’t you”.

“Yes”, I said, “... to stop Leicester winning the title by Christmas!”

His companion got the intended humour of the comment and grinned, but his friend continued; “No, it is to even out the season, to take account for internationals and the teams missing England players.”

“Rubbish”, I said, “it does no such thing”. There was a short, good humoured debate about the merits of the play-off system which ended on an agree-to-disagree decision &‐ in truth I think we just got bored before heading off.

But then I started to think about the claims made by the ‘For-the-play-offs’ camp; does this system actually find the best team in England by somehow compensating for the loss of key players at various times of the season? Time to check out some stats!!!

For those who don’t remember that far back, there was a time when there were NO end of season play-offs! The system used prior to 2003 was a simply – play all your games, see who wins the most games and accrues most points - the English champion was simply the team that finished the season in the top spot.

This system was used from the first season of the Courage National League introduced in 1988 – really the first truly organised rugby union league (J.Smiths sponsored a national league for a couple of seasons with limited success).

Between 1988 (the first year of the Courage League) and 2002 (part way through the Zurich sponsored Leagues) the champions were predominantly:

Tigers: 1988, 1995, and 1999 though 2002 inclusive, totalling six titles.

Bath: 1989, 1991 through 1994 inclusive, and 1996, also taking six titles.

Wasps topped the table twice in this period: 1990 and 1997, while Newcastle took top spot in 1998 at the start of the professional era.

Things started to change in 2001 when Zurich introduced a new, separate, end of season play-off competition for the Zurich Trophy, or the hub-cap. The champions were still considered to be the team that finished top, but this new competition would add a little interest to the end of a regular season. The inaugural Zurich Play-off Trophy was won by Tigers in the same year that they won their third consecutive English league title and their second successive European title. Looking at the lists above, it would be no surprise to see that this play-off featured Tigers against Bath, who finished 3rd in the regular season. The play-off final featured the winner of a match between the 2nd placed team (Wasps) versus 3rd (Bath) against the table topper.

Obviously, this was not exciting enough for the brain-boxes at Zurich. The following year the play-off system was changed to include the top eight teams with the top four playing their games at home, similar to the method used for the HEC qualifying final eight: 1 v 8, 2 v 7, 3 v 6 and 4 v 5, and so on until they were whittled down to the last two finalists. There was also an attempt to make the winner of the Zurich Play-off final the English champion, but this was suggested mid-way through the season – the move was roundly rejected for the 2002 season, and Tigers went on to top spot and secure their fourth successive title. The final was contested by Gloucester (4th) and Bristol (who finished in 8th); Bris got there the hard way by beating Tigers at Welford Road, then Saints at Franklins Gardens before losing to Gloucester by 28 – 23.

And so to the play-off system from 2003 onwards.  




So, the argument for the play-off system is that the end of season 1 v 4, 2 v 3 followed by a final somehow compensates clubs for losing their strongest players for England duty.

Based on the table above and if this was the intention, this has only worked out three times in the last 11 years: 2008, 2010 and 2013. In every other season, the team that has provided most players to represent England (ignoring the fact that they would also have players called up for other countries) has either failed to reach a play-off spot or has lost out in the final couple of games of the season – invariably to teams that have not been so affected!

As we all know, the premiership champions have never come from teams finishing in 3rd or 4th place. Sure, teams have made it to the final from 3rd or 4th: Tigers from 4th in 2008; London Irish from 3rd in 2009; Saracens from 3rd place in 2010 and Saints from 4th spot in 2013. The final word in the final has always gone to the team that finished in the top two.

Based on the information above, the compensation factor does not come into it; if you have a strong team, you make the finals regardless of your commitments to the England squad. If you manage your team throughout the season in order to finish in the top four play-off places, 3rd or 4th isn’t good enough!

Looking at the finishing places in the premiership over the last four years, there is an interesting trend. The top four teams were:

2010: Tigers, Saints, Saracens, Bath

2011: Tigers, Saracens, Gloucester, Saints

2012: Harlequins, Tigers, Saracens, Saints

2013: Saracens, Tigers, Harlequins, Saints

It will be interesting to see if anyone can displace the top three / four teams.

On a different subject, looking at the performance of English clubs over the last 11 years, there are clear trends across the other competitions. I only noticed this when looking at the table with the non-English teams greyed out.

Immediately before this period, English teams played a significant part in the HEC, taking the Heineken Cup in 2000 (Saints) and 2001 / 2002 (Tigers). This table highlights the paucity of English rugby clubs’ performances on the major European stage.

English clubs have fared better in the European second-tier competition taking seven out of the thirteen cups, and have dominated the Anglo-Welsh competition, with Welsh clubs taking the silverware in 2008 and 2009.

The play-offs are clearly here to stay. As time passes the arguments over the justification of the system will be lost as it becomes entrenched as the norm.

Does the persistence of the play-off system mean that it is the right way to decide the English champions? Not for me, but then I have always been opposed. I am sure that there are other arguments and justifications for both camps beyond the info that I have dug through. For some, the argument ‘for’ the play-offs works. You can decide for yourself.

All information is available from:

RFU website

Aviva Premiership website


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Play-offs: help or hindrance? (IP Logged)
17/06/2013 19:40
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Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 2013:07:01:19:23:28 by Tiggs.

Re: Play-offs: help or hindrance?
SimW (IP Logged)
17/06/2013 20:01
Interesting read Ian. I wouldn't have predicted the stats you quote at all. Very surprising. I am opposed to the play-offs but reluctantly accept that whilst the final makes a profit it's here to stay.

Re: Play-offs: help or hindrance?
Stopsy (IP Logged)
17/06/2013 20:11
Thanks Ian.

I remain against the Play Offs and believe that their influence of "it doesn't matter if you lose games" has had a corrosive effect on the English game at both club and international level.

Sim however states the real reason for their existence, it makes money for the majority of clubs, who contribute nothing to it.

Free money!

Re: Play-offs: help or hindrance?
IanC (IP Logged)
18/06/2013 07:20
Just a clarification of the first set of play offs - the fact that the winners were going to be the English Champions was actually publicised and introduced part way through the season, thanks mainly to a motion from the Sale publicity bloke after most of the representatives had left.
A concerted letter writing and emailing campaign to Zurich led to a hasty change when the sponsors appreciated what the Premiership was doing to their image.
I was very proud to locate the Chairman of Zurich's email address and publicise it here and on the radio. Peter Reid, the then Loughbourough MP, also got involved.
I'm told that if the powers that be hadn't changed it back to the start of season rules the players were determined to win the play off and then throw their medals into the crowd.
Nothing to be done the year after, of course, because they made it clear at the start who would be Champions.
All quite exciting in hindsight!

Re: Play-offs: help or hindrance?
Johns (IP Logged)
18/06/2013 07:24
Thanks Ian, I have always believed that the play offs effect the HEC not not bothered to do the maths.

Mike is right, again how can a DOR/HC claiming a loss does not matter because of the play offs be right? To my mind it takes the edge off and makes loses acceptable.

I also reject the desire to level the playing field, clubs should aim to be the best nothing less not rely on artificial levellers.

Play offs, Salary Caps, smoothing of incomes etc.

Re: Play-offs: help or hindrance?
Duncan Keene (IP Logged)
18/06/2013 08:29
Fantastic article Ian, a great read and well written.

My argument 'in favour' of the playoffs is pretty simple:
"We all know the rules, we can only play what's in front of us".

For that reason i really dislike the refusenik attitude of XYZ are the 'real champions' because they finished top, when finishing top is not what the clubs are trying to do. There is no advantage at all in finishing top over second.

But would I have brought them in? No, I would have preferred keeping the Cup Final as the finish to the season and looking at ways of incentivising clubs to see the Cup as of increased importance.

As it is, with PRL in charge the playoffs are going nowhere. I don't think that's entirely a bad thing, as the corrupting factors of varying team selections, bonus points (and the weather factor of the likelihood of getting them), international call-ups etc would be boiling over as issues if it was a straight league.

There are things I will always miss about the league: The chance to win a trophy at our ground or in front of travelling support at other little grounds being the main one.

Finally a couple of observations on your table. It seems the 'coming team' often wins the title, before large numbers of players are called up for England. And perhaps controversially, does the far right column really show us the strongest team each year?!

Re: Play-offs: help or hindrance?
Ian B (IP Logged)
18/06/2013 09:15
Duncan - thanks for the feedback.

The article is not an argument against the play-offs (even though I am opposed to their existence), and you are quite right when you say "We all know the rules, we can only play what's in front of us". This was exactly the stance taken by Wasps in the early years because I believe that they just 'got it' from the outset: gear your season to finish in the top 4, then all steam ahead for the title. In 2003 Gloucester stormed to the top of the Prem and ended up 15 points clear of Wasps in second place, they made the final, but had (in my opinion) not structured their season, team rotation etc. to cope with the intensity of the play-off finals. Wasps won by 39 - 3.

Today, everyone 'gets it' and the race for top spot has been replaced by a race for a top-four slot. Having said that, three out of the last five titles have gone to the team that did, in fact, finish top, so you could again argue 'why are we bothering with a play-off'.

I suppose it will all change and the system will be justified once we see a team from 3rd or 4th go on to win the title, which I am sure will happen at some point.

The far right column merely reflects the thinking of the England selectors - no further comment on that one!

For anyone who is interested, I have a spreadsheet from which all of the information above was extracted. This shows how every English team performed in Europe (HEC / ACC / AW) during this period, league standings, points accrued, England squads (as taken from wikipedia). Email if you would like a copy.

Re: Play-offs: help or hindrance?
Stopsy (IP Logged)
18/06/2013 11:34
The other issue is that the Play Offs tend to favour hard track teams so a team of heavy horse that slogs through the winter and wins loads is disadvantaged on the day in May.

To me the fact that the PRL got rid of the league in order to bolster the reputation of the Play Offs tells me that they are a less valued concept.

I agree Duncan that there are no "real" winners, only Play Off winners, the fact that people do not try as hard to get top spot any more devalues the week in week out game.

Re: Play-offs: help or hindrance?
Duncan Keene (IP Logged)
18/06/2013 11:51
That's also a good point Stopsy. Though of course you have to play through all conditions to qualify for the play offs.

I'm a big believer in horses for courses. Our selection of Goneva for the last couple of games was a good one in my mind as his mistakes came in the heart of the winter. Tom Croft has his critics on other message boards, but he's another one that is a great Twickenham player. Also why he really suits the Lions.

It's also why I bemoan the lack of room in the cap to have kept Varndell. Of course he is flawed, but I just wonder if he'd have got over the try line in our narrow final defeats.

Re: Play-offs: help or hindrance?
Stopsy (IP Logged)
18/06/2013 13:52
Agreed Duncan the selections were subtly different to suit the conditions, not every team has that luxury although admittedly the top 4 always seem to have it to a degree.

Re: Play-offs: help or hindrance?
iang1963 (IP Logged)
18/06/2013 15:42
Thanks Mr B, interesting stats.
I was also at the Bath game at the wreck. I used the ďis this the next bright new dawn for Bath?Ē approach.
But there it was hitting me why I didnít like the play offs. I wasnít that bothered about the defeat. It was a game we should have won but ultimately had little effect on the season. I now only travel away to Bath for league games. The season for me isnít about a cup final on the other side of London. Its week in week out that I want to see meaningful competitive rugby. I have even thought about if introducing an additional bonus point for 2 tries would always give teams coming to WR something to aim for. (yes a bit patronizing).
How far will rugby grow using a ďbig day outĒ approach?
I think we had a better deal with a real league and a knockout cup. I know itís an old manís view maybe but remember we were going to watch well before a league system was introduced.

Re: Play-offs: help or hindrance?
SimW (IP Logged)
18/06/2013 16:36
It's a reasonable argument that the play-offs are harming the England team. The RFU, who are surely one of the big beneficiaries of the pay-off, are therefore damaging their own business.

Re: Play-offs: help or hindrance?
18/06/2013 18:04
It's a terrific post. I remain in the 'anti payoff' camp but accept that we have to play the system as it is.If it looks as though we are champions, If it sounds as though we are champions and we are called champions then we must be the champions. Interesting comment about Goneva. He came good when it mattered.

Re: Play-offs: help or hindrance?
Yorkie (IP Logged)
19/06/2013 00:49
It's a reasonable argument that the play-offs are harming the England team. The RFU, who are surely one of the big beneficiaries of the pay-off, are therefore damaging their own business.

Agree that the payoffs are probably damaging the England team (not that I care much about this nowadays tbh) but not sure how the RFU benefit from the payoff final apart from a day's rental and concessions income from their stadium?

Would be an interesting exercise for someone so inclined to reconfigure the Prem table over recent seasons without any bonus points awarded. Tigers seem to do very well each season with their haul of bonus points and they certainly boost our league position I believe. Bonus points are also part of the "new way" of doing things along with the payoffs.

I've heard it said that Tigers were very much to blame for Zurich being able to force the Champion title being given to their payoff final winner after we lost to Bristol at WR as this proved we weren't taking the competition to win their new hub cap seriously having already won the league and been awarded the Champions title.

I remain against the concept of the payoffs but unfortunately they are here to stay a while and so we can only play the competition as it's laid out at the start of the season. Even the soon to arrive Anglo-French League will have them imvho.

Re: Play-offs: help or hindrance?
Beckenham Wasp (IP Logged)
19/06/2013 00:51

Great article. Much appreciated.

Briefly I will add a Wasps perspective before dealing with my main point. I think the main reason why Wasps "got" the playoffs was the innovative and highly pragmatic coaching methods of Gatland and Shaun Edwards. Gatland's background in New Zealand and Edwards background in Rugby League meant when the playoffs were introduced Wasps hit the ground running with coaches used to the playoff system and comfortable with it. Gatland and Edwards basically realised that what they needed to do was fashion the ultimate cup side, which is what they did. Ironically another Wasps legend Nigel Neville took the polar opposite view, buried his head in the sand as DoR of Gloucester, and promptly got his team humiliated in the 2003 final.

My main point is I think you underestimate the commercial reasons and imperatives that led to the creation and then the maintenance of the playoff system. In answer to why the playoffs were created my answer would be that the playoffs make the Premiership much more commercial attractive for sponsors etc. and make all the clubs much more money.

Sorry to be completely lacking in romance but in an infant professional sport like Rugby Union making the sport commercially sustainable is the overriding concern. The playoffs helped in this massively.

With the playoffs, and indeed with relegation and European qualification, all twelve clubs have their seasons kept alive for as long as possible. The more games with something riding upon them the more interest is generated amongst supporters, broadcasters and sponsors. Therefore the clubs all make more money. In a commercial sense it is win win. Under the playoff system very few games are now dead, a lot fewer than was the case under the old traditional league format when only 1 or maybe two clubs had the chance of winning the league after Christmas.

The uncertainty and sudden death nature of the playoffs has certainly generated greater interest amongst casual and new supporters. Personally I think Premier Rugby has got the balance between sporting credibility and commercial considerations exactly right. In the vast majority of cases winning league games still matters a great deal. The league is usually tight and league games have to be closely fought by teams regardless of position.

Also the fact that only teams who have finished in the top two have won the Premiership is another boost to its credibility. The "best" team in a given year usually wins the Premiership. As of yet I can't think of a season where the playoffs have led to an unfair result. You could argue that 2003 was a travesty of justice, which seemed to be the majority view at the time, however subsequent history points to that extraordinary result as not being a mere fluke. 2010 was probably next closest to an unfair result when an ageing and average Saracens side snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

The contrast to rugby league is stark. In Super League the bloated 8 team playoff from a 14 team league is both a sporting and commercial disaster zone. With only 4 or 5 strong clubs and no relegation league matches in Super League really don't matter. The result is that matches are much less intense and the big clubs save their players and their performances for the bloated playoffs.

Basically I think the playoffs were a commercial necessity and they have achieved their aim of making the Premiership more commercially attractive. Additionally the sporting credibility of the competition hasn't suffered, unlike in rugby league. In manys ways with more games having competitive meaning for more clubs than under the traditional league format you could argue sporting credibility has been improved.

Just a personal view. I know opposition to the playoffs is very strong in Leicester and Gloucester but I don't think the commercial requirements that brought them about haven't compromised the integrity of the rugby on the pitch.

Re: Play-offs: help or hindrance?
Stopsy (IP Logged)
19/06/2013 06:41
Do you mean "Gloucester but I don't think the commercial requirements that brought them about have compromised the integrity of the rugby on the pitch" ?

Re: Play-offs: help or hindrance?
Ian B (IP Logged)
19/06/2013 09:24
Hi BW - lots of good points here and I would not argue against most of what you write as the points you raise a perfectly valid.

Part of the 'good natured banter' banter with the Bath supporter (mentioned early on in the piece) included a tongue in cheek comment from me along the lines of '... (the play-offs) exist to screw more money out of the fans...'

However, the point of the article was to examine at the assertion that was made, which is quoted and believed by many people, that the play-off system is somehow the magic bullet that compensates clubs for losing key players throughout the season. So all I have done is look at who did what, when and by how much their squads were depleted due to international call ups.

I completely accept your arguments about the financial incentives for the play-off system and the fact that union is now a professional sport in every way. It is a business that needs to generate income and attract new blood in order to survive and develop and grow over time.

You mentioned that very few games are now dead - for me, this Bath game was one of those 'dead games' and I have to agree with iang1963; I was also completely unconcerned at losing to Bath this season - which can't be right!!! The Bath supportes that I spoke to were elated with their team's victory over the Old Enemy, I was utterly indifferent to the loss. With two games left in the season (Bath away, Irish at home), Tigers were almost certainly guranteed a home fixture, the loss at the Rec possibly stopping Tigers overtaking Saracens for top spot... so what? Second place, it seems, is good enough these days.

Personally, I would not say that 2003 was a travesty in any way. Wasps were the best team around during the six year period from 2003 to 2008; four play-off trophies, two European cups, an Amlin and an Anglo-Welsh cup is a pretty damned good haul in anybody's book! You can't argue with that! The fault, if there was any fault in 2003, was down to the failure of Gloucester's management and coaching staff to manage their season to fit in with the new structure.

You also seem to be ever-so-slightly wavering towards the anti-play-off camp when you talk about the fairness of certain results? (Sm141). If you accept that the play-off system is a fair and just way to decide the English champion then, by definition, there cannot be any unfair results because the strongest / best sides will always come away with the silverware. smiling smiley ............unless it's Northampton, obviously......(Sm100)

Thanks again for your post on this thread - all good points well made.

Re: Play-offs: help or hindrance?
Beckenham Wasp (IP Logged)
19/06/2013 10:52
Just trying to compliment rather than disagree but I do think the commercial aspects of the playoffs were the key reason they were introduced.

I think people get a bit misty eyed about the old league system. If you weren't in the Championship race, which was usually 9 or 10 of the clubs, the league season tended to peter out by February and March and there were lots of dead games. Unfortunately under any system there will be dead games but there are a lot less now than there used to be. Looking back at the end of last season right up to the penultimate round of games nearly all the clubs had something to play for. The playoffs, Europe or avoiding relegation. The only club that seemed to get cut in no man's land was Worcester. That is pretty good going in my book.

In terms of 2003 I can tell you that there were lots of "banter" about how Gloucester were robbed. I think part of the problem was that Gloucester coaches and players didn't buy into the concept and went around claiming that they were already champions. Completely idiotic in retrospect.

The "fairness" and sporting credibility argument is an interesting one. In an ideal World, where the club games and the international games didn't conflict with each other, then a pure league system would be the way to go. However the fixtures clashes do penalise the clubs with lots of England players. The playoffs do go some way to ensure that the Champions are judged on their best 23 players rather than their wider squads. You could therefore argue that the playoffs reward excellence rather than just squad depth.

The sporting credibility argument is pretty key. Nothing is more of a turn off for supporters and the money men than for a competition being viewed as unfair or "mickey mouse" in its structure. Again the troubles of British rugby league are instructive. Last year Leeds Rhinos cruised for most of the League season, finished 5th, and then through the bloated and convoluted playoff system managed to get through to the final and win the competition. That just makes a mockery of the regular season.

Here are the details. Note how poor the crowds are for playoffs compared to the normal league matches. The sporting public aren't fools. If you serve up an overly complex, compromised and artificial product people will walk with their feet.


Re: Play-offs: help or hindrance?
19/06/2013 17:10
An interesting article, and thank you for that, and many worthy ripostes / complements, but I still see no valid reason why you cannot have both champions as the team which finishes top and pay-offs too.

Provided the value of each are optimum in comparative reward and cudos then surely the league's validity can be increased without cost to the lucrative pay-offs

'Lions led by donkeys' .. Lest we forget

Re: Play-offs: help or hindrance?
SimW (IP Logged)
21/06/2013 11:23

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 2013:06:21:12:36:58 by SimW.

Re: Play-offs: help or hindrance?
Ian B (IP Logged)
21/06/2013 11:28
SimW - done.

Anyone else - don't ask, not worth commenting on beyond this.

Re: Play-offs: help or hindrance?
21/06/2013 17:29

'Lions led by donkeys' .. Lest we forget

Re: Play-offs: help or hindrance?
Tiggs (IP Logged)
01/07/2013 19:19
Many, many thanks Ian, I hope others might also give writing an article a try too.

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 2013:07:01:19:22:44 by Tiggs.

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