After months of speculation, the RFL has announced that 2018 will be the end of the Super 8 format. Starting next season a more traditional one-up, one-down promotion and relegation format will be reinstated and it comes with a new playoff format. The decision came following the Emergency General Meeting held on Friday, September 13th, 2018. The Super 8s format was introduced in 2015, so it didn’t have a very long run. Personally, I think it is a lot of fun. In the build-up, to the meeting, there was plenty of talk about the politics behind the decision. One common belief amongst the Championship and League 1 clubs is that this move is simply out of greed and lust for power. Under the Super 8 format, 4 Championship teams are given the chance to earn promotion at the end of the season. Now it will only be one, which means that bad Super League teams are in less danger of being relegated and losing funding. On the other side of the coin, the Super League clubs (with the exception of Leeds) will say that this move is the best thing for the game of rugby league. You can read plenty of articles about the politics behind the decision, but this will not be one of them. All I want to discuss is the actual on-field product and the implications that this new format has to the game itself.
So without further ado, here is the new Super League structure:
And here is how it fits into Championship and League 1
If you wish, you can read the full explanation from the RFL here.
This format sucks.
It just had to be overly complicated right? An odd number team playoff, although somewhat unusual, can work. For example, Major League Baseball has a play-in game for the final Wild Card spot. After that game, the playoffs are pretty straightforward; winner moves on, the loser is eliminated. Which is my biggest complaint about the new playoff format that will be seen in Super League, Championship, and League 1 next year; you can lose and still win the Grand Final.
Much of the rugby league media has spent this season discussing ways to bring in new fans. One way to hurt your chances of doing that is to have an overly complicated playoff format. As a Canadian rugby league fan, I often try to convince my friends to watch Super League or come out to a Wolfpack game. Inevitably, I will spend plenty of time explaining certain rules as the game unfolds. I can’t wait until next year when I have to explain why a team that just lost in the semi-final can actually still win the Grand Final, but the team that lost the other semi-final is eliminated. Hopefully, the confused looks are not as bad as the 40/20 kick. This is where a benefit of a simplified format can come into play. I have found that new fans have an easier time understanding the game if you can find a comparison to other sports. For example, at Lamport Stadium you will always here 6 tackles being explained like downs in football. I have referred to a sin-bin as “a 10-minute power play”, a concept familiar to all hockey fans. No other sport has losing in the playoffs and I guarantee this will confuse casual fans.
Ultimately, as the RFL clearly lays out, the losers of the Qualifying Final and Semi-Final 2 are still left with a path to the being crowned Champions. This leads to another huge problem with the format. Since you are able to lose, some of the games are now meaningless. The Qualifying Final is to be played between the 2nd place team and the 3rd place team. However, both teams move on to the semi-finals. So what is the point? If you are a coach of one of those teams your goal should leave the stadium with no injuries. The worst part is that the winner of the Qualifying Final moves on to play the #1 ranked team in Semi-Final 2, yet another game where the loser moves on. However, the losing team in the Qualifying Final will meet the winner of the Elimination Final between the 4th and 5th place teams in Semi-Final 1. Meaning the reward for winning the Qualifying Final is the best team in the league. If you want to get picky, the winner of Semi-Final 2 does get a bye to the Grand Final, so I suppose the winner of the Qualifying Final earns the right to play for a chance to rest, but that isn’t much. Regardless, the outcome of Semi-Final 2 is once again ultimately meaningless as both teams move on. The loser of the game moves on to the Preliminary Final against the winner of Semi-Final 1. It just is way too convoluted.
A 5-team playoff can simple. The 4th and 5th teams play for the final spot in the Semi-Finals, where teams 1, 2, and 3 await. Semi-Final 1 is Team 1 vs Team 4/5 and Semi-Final 2 is Team 2 vs Team 3. The Grand Final takes place between the two winners of the Semi-Final games. There is no need for the Qualifying Final and the Preliminary Final.
Now, let’s just say the RFL needs to play those two games due to the television contracts or for other financial reasons. If you must have two extra games, do it this way. The top 6 teams in Super League make the playoffs. The teams that top the tables at 1 and 2 get byes as there reward for being the best teams all year. Two Quarter-Final games will then be played. Quarter-Final 1 between Team 3 and Team 6 and Quarter-Final 2 between Team 4 and Team 5. The Quarter-Finals replaces the Elimination Final and the Qualifying Final. The losers are eliminated. The winners move on to the Semi-Finals where Teams 1 and 2 await. Team 1 will face the lowest ranked Quarterfinal winner, and Team 2 gets the highest ranked. The losers are once again eliminated and the winners will meet in the Grand Final. However, at this stage, the Preliminary Final can be replaced by a Bronze Medal Game between the losers of the Semi-Finals. The RFL still gets 6 playoff games, but the format is simple and much easier to explain. For visual reference:
This format will also work at the Championship and League 1 levels. In Championship, this simply just takes place between the top 6 as explained above. In League 1, the top team can still earn automatic promotion. Teams ranked 2 through 7 would then follow the same format.
Ultimately, I feel that the two biggest problems with the new format are it is hard to explain and being able to lose renders certain games completely meaningless. Potential new fans could be turned away due to the confusing format and the fact that the outcomes of certain games are not overly important. The emotional impact of the games will be weakened if the fans know that a loss simply means regrouping for next week. Sometimes watching sports can be stressful (in a fun way) and tense. If you know losing is not that big of a deal, the tension is gone and that makes it less enjoyable to watch. A more simplified format that creates tension in every game and is easy to follow will be more attractive to new fans. Personally, I don’t like eliminating the Super 8s in favour of this format, but you never know. Maybe I will change my mind when the Wolfpack lose in Semi-Final 2.