With all the excitement of England’s first Grand Slam in 13 years it might be easy to forget the serious business of the Aviva Premiership has been bubbling along every week since the start of February. With no LV Cup this year because of the delayed start to the season English club sides are eight games through a ten week solid block of Premiership matches, five of which were Six Nations weekends. Does this however still justify having end of season play-offs that consistently reward late bolters?
The well-established semi-finals and final format are run in a manner known as a Shaughnessy play-off system but have only delivered what many would consider the right outcome (the league winner being crowned champions) on four occasions in 13 years. The logic behind this is that as clubs are disrupted (in normal seasons) by the Autumn Internationals and the Six Nations there should be some compensation for being without star international players for a significant period of the season. Clubs do receive some financial benefits for providing international players but is this system a reasonable adjustment relative to the impact of International games?
Looking at the 2015/16 table from Round 11 to Round 17 there is only minimal movement in league positions, most notably Saracens finally slipping off top spot and Harlequins falling out of the play-off places to sixth place. These two sides however do have large contingents of England players so it could be said that the Six Nations does hit them disproportionately because they provide many internationals. On the other hand Bath, who also contribute numerous players such as Jonathan Joseph, George Ford and Antony Watson, have been unable to move from 9th place and have performed little different from the non-international period. The one result that supports the play-off logic was Wasps’ absolute demolition of Saracens 64-23 at Allianz Park, a result that seems inconceivable if Saracens were at full-strength.
If then after six weeks of intense Aviva Premiership action the table is virtually the same as before the Six Nations it would not be unreasonable to say that even with freak results caused by weakened line-ups teams more or less still perform as well as they otherwise would have. A return then to a simple league system that rewards resilience and consistency, as well as building a strong squad, would not seem that controversial. However let’s consider this scenario: had Northampton as league winners last season been crowned champions, then we would not be calling Saracens the champions and perhaps players like Maro Itoje and George Kruis may not have been promoted to the England side so readily. Of course the other argument against removing the play-offs is that the league winner should be strong enough to win two more matches and be crowned champions anyway. Yet when only Leicester, Sale and Harlequins have managed this, the argument is clearly flawed. As sides like Wasps and Saracens have demonstrated it is possible to stumble into the play-offs and then end up being titled champions on the basis of two games. This seems like an extreme outcome that seems to outweigh the benefits of the play-offs, such as the showpiece final at Twickenham.
Looking at all the evidence I would conclude that the play-off system rarely produces the right rugby result, and adjusting the whole league system to compensate a very small minority of teams who are heavily impacted by the Six Nations seems excessive. It is unlikely to change given the TV and crowd revenues at the end of season matches, but that is no reason to tolerate a failing system.