The traditionalists were turning in their grave when the concept of playoffs were brought in to rugby to decide who would ultimately be the winner of a season long competition. Playoffs were originally introduced to bring together teams in one competition that had previously been geographically dispersed across separate regional or national competitions.
Today they are used as an end of season target to ensure as many teams as possible have something to play for right up until the last game of the season. All three top northern hemisphere leagues now have the playoff structure in place where the highest league finisher is not automatically crowned the title winner; Pro12 used it for the first time in the 2009-10, the English Premiership from 2002-3 and the French Top 14 has used various versions for over 15 years.
Perhaps the most impressive statistic from the Pro12 playoffs is that the away team has yet to win a playoff semi-final! That suggests Munster will beat Ospreys to go on and play Glasgow in the final.
Holding the semi-final at the highest placed team’s home ground does provide a huge advantage which to date has pretty much guaranteed a place in the final. Other leagues such as the Top 14 place the semi finals at neutral venues which negates the benefit of finishing in the top couple of league positions.
If we look at the team that finished the season top and who went on to take the title we get the following:
2009-10: Top of table – Leinster, title winner – Ospreys
2010-11: Top of the table – Munster, title winner – Munster
2011-12: Top of the table – Leinster, title winner – Ospreys
2012-13: Top of the table – Ulster, title winner – Leinster
2013-14: Top of the table – Leinster, title winner – Leinster
2014-15: Top of the table – Glasgow, title winner – ?
Statistically, you have slightly more chance of winning the title by coming second in the league rather than topping it after the normal season, which suggests it may be Munster’s year. Coming 3rd or 4th in the league has historically meant you had no chance of the title.
There is still something artificial about the table topping team not automatically being crowned champions but there is no doubt the interest in the season is extended and the playoff games are well attended events which garner a great deal of interest and publicity.
The best team should be the title winners but rugby is entertainment and the playoffs have certainly increased the level of entertainment and the profile of the competition. They are probably here to stay.
The other major talking point of this year’s Pro 12 playoffs was that the referees chosen to officiate teams from their same union. The Glasgow-Ulster game was adjudicated by Ireland’s George Clancy and the other playoff semi-final involving the Ospreys will have Nigel Owens in the middle.
There are probably no other major cross-border competitions which do not have mandatory neutral referees appointments, so the Pro12 approach does stand out like a sore thumb.
In reality we don’t believe that there will be inherent bias in the way the referees will approach the game but the fact that people will automatically question their impartiality means it is time to move to neutral appointments.