I don’t know about you, but this time of year is as bittersweet as it gets.
On the one hand, semi final NRL is enough to get anyone jumping out of their skin. Moreover, this year’s finals series is a complete lottery, and anyone who says they know who will be crowned the ultimate champions are more deluded than an ALP strategist.
Expectations in previous years have tended to centre realistically around one or two teams, with some peripheral sentimental hopes capturing the imagination and keeping interest levels elevated long to last the distance. And when it reached Grand Final stage, only a monumental upset would be enough to defeat the favourite. Think of the Storm last year, Manly in 2011, the Dragons in 2010 and so on. Still, it was engrossing.
This year, however, is harder to pick than a broken nose. All Top 4 teams are equally likely Premiers in my view, with each having floated into and out of Premiership-winning form and favouritism in recent weeks, but each easily having the strikepower to prevail on any given day.
As romantic a notion as it might be to see the resurgent Cowboys take the game’s biggest prize from 8th position, or the Sharks overcome a tumultuous year off the field and take out their first title, the quality of the Top 4 stands in their way like a collective colossus.
In many ways, these two teams have been playing semi final-type footy for some time, the Cowboys just to reach this point, and the Sharks … well … that’s just the way they play.
The difference now is that the Top 4 (as well as the Bulldogs and Knights) are now playing with this seasonal intensity too.
On the other hand, however, the adrenalin and heightened emotion of the Finals Series are offset by the knowledge that we are nearing the end of yet another season – dark days indeed!
The first stark reminder is the lack of Monday Night Football. Super Saturday will soon reduce to the single match, and Sunday the same.
So as you can see, this time of year is a combustible brew of pleasure and pain.
Going ‘The Tank’
Tanking has become a popular word over the last round of the competition, as teams are seen to be massaging their finish to give themselves an edge in the Finals Series.
My own view was that the Bulldogs and Sharks should have both won given they were playing sides many stations below them, and who had nothing to play for bar pride. However, there was the prospect that one or both of them would jockey to face the Knights in the first knock-out final rather than run into the juggernaut Cowboys.
Then there was the idea that Manly wouldn’t be unhappy losing to the Panthers (after the Storm won and secured 3rd place) because that would mean an extra day’s recovery time. The fact that NRL scheduling had shafted Manly with an inappropriately short recovery period were they to end up 3rd, had been noted by every NRL commentator in the cosmos. And it wouldn’t really matter whether they faced the Roosters or Rabbitohs. They would both be an ‘away’ game, and they haven’t beaten either in four attempts this year. Why wouldn’t you?
The theory was working just fine until a massively under strength Sharks lapped the Raiders, who lost their last six matches and missed the finals (as expected here in the NRL surgery).
Unlike some commentators, and possibly controversially, given I regard the season as two different competitions – one to reach the finals, the second being the actual finals (which it is, functionally speaking) – I have no problem with a team managing their finals position, as long as it is in that context. To be clear, it’s a tactic open only to those who have the luxury of ladder position. There’s no reason otherwise (if you assume teams are actually trying to make the finals).
For the 5th to 8th placed teams, ensuring they have the best chance to proceed to Week 2, where every team is facing a sudden death situation, is just being strategic. Why can’t you do it? As long as it’s not involved with betting (illegal), or just not trying because you perhaps don’t like the coach (grounds for dismissal in my book), then strategise away.
The Top 8 – Hard Luck Stories and is it worth it?
I love the Top 8 concept, mostly because it provides more football!
Another, more important reason, is that it allows a wider range of teams to compete for the Premiership who aren’t really all that far apart when it comes to ability.
Still, there is always the disappointing exclusion from the finals of any number of teams who have made their run too late, or who look back ruefully at a game they should have perhaps prepared better for and won.
Looking at the chart below, you can see how many tight games occurred for each team through the year, and the amount they actually won. The Dragons should probably have been far better than 15th place, but they had an inability to win close games and, well, the results are on the board.
The most notable underperformer for me was the Warriors. Not only did they have one of the easiest draws with six rounds to go, but when you look at their season, you have to conclude that they missed the finals because they couldn’t beat the 15th placed Dragons and 16th (and last) placed Eels. That is, they didn’t really deserve it.
As for the value of the Top 8 concept, the Cowboys are an advertisement both for and against. They can beat anyone on their day, and their most recent high-profile scalp was a complete and utter lesson handed out to the Rabbitohs in Round 21. They are now the form team in the Finals Series having scraped into 8th position after a string of six consecutive victories, but despite attacking flair that puts most teams to shame, their defence is equal 2nd worst with the Tigers. Gulp.
The other side of the Top 8 coin is that they made the Top 8 after having achieved very little during the year, and all it took was a good, short period of wins to achieve the final spot on the Top 8. They lost half of their matches for the year, and before their winning spree were six from 18 … but at least they had a positive For & Against, I guess.
The NRL is no stranger to blunders (see City v Country as a good example), and they have repeatedly been schooled by the AFL in the art of scheduling matches this year. Once is bad enough, but again? In the finals?
Then again, they are no stranger to strange ideas as well. I’m sure this will change.
In the meantime, the NRL has seen fit to announce ‘an historic’ finals double header as if it is some great leap forward in the game’s administration (it’s not), when really it’s because the AFL had already booked ANZ Stadium. I’m kind of getting concerned about some left-field netball extravaganza over the long weekend in October …
To make matters worse, the NRL has locked itself into a strategy whereby it lists ‘acceptable venues’ for semi final matches (that aren’t ‘suburban’).
Rules-based solutions have always been sub optimal in my view, simply because they don’t account for unforeseen circumstances. Or even well foreseeable circumstances! They don’t work well in practice, even if the idea seems to make sense initially. They are just a lazy way to administrate, pure and simple.
A far better approach is have a set of core principles to adhere to, but which are open to pragmatism when situations arise that call for some flexibility.
What we have now where the Finals Series venues are concerned is an idea that teams earn the reward of a home final by virtue of their efforts over a long, gruelling season, but which, in reality, is nothing of the sort.
In short, clubs only get that reward if they have a home ground that is a mega stadium, or are an interstate team.
The NRL state this explicitly,
“The highest qualifying teams after 26 Rounds will host each match at their normal home venue, with exception to any Sydney based NRL club which will play their ‘home game’ at either the Allianz Stadium or ANZ Stadium.”
Looking at the NRL’s Finals Series Structure, we find that in addition to Allianz and ANZ Stadiums in Sydney, the following venues (amongst others) are generally available for the Finals Series:
Canberra Stadium – capacity 25,000
Remondis Stadium – capacity 22,000
Energy Australia – capacity 33,000
1300 Smiles Stadium – capacity 21,500
Skilled Park – capacity 27,400
Brookvale oval – capacity 23,000
So what they are saying is that it’s alright for the Cowboys to host the Sharks at 1330 Smiles Stadium with a capacity of 21,500, but it’s not good enough for the Sharks to host the Cowboys this weekend at Remondis Stadium, which has a capacity of 23,000.
Make much sense?
This is why the ‘rules-based’ system is mired in intellectual poverty (can you tell I don’t approve?).
Were the Sharks to play another Sydney team in a home final, I would completely agree that ANZ Stadium might be a better venue than Remondis, which probably would need to be 2.5 times larger to accommodate the crowd who wanted to attend.
But the Cowboys? Remondis would be largely full (though probably not completely) of local supporters plus a few travelling Cowboys. This is the benefit of a home final. And it would be exactly the same as if the game were played in a similarly sized stadium in Townsville.
Instead, the NRL is making up for its lead-footed ground-booking process by now trying to ‘protect’ a game that has a Sydney suburban team and an outsider from the ignominy of a small crowd. Well, I’m sorry, but this is a bit of a slap in the face to the Sharks and their supporters. And if the match were held at Remondis, I have no doubt there would be a larger crowd (that approaches 20,000 for a sudden-death final, given the Round 25 clash attracted over 15,000) than the one that actually makes the trip to Moore Park (perhaps half). It’s not a pleasant drive from the Shire on a very busy day, I can tell you. Fire up the barbie and the TV …
The other issue here is the timing. The 3pm experiment has not been a success for TV or crowds, and despite this match being a semi final, going with the statistical probability is probably the wiser course of action. That is, the Sharks could play a 5:30pm match (at Allianz Stadium, because clearly Remondis is off the table) that rolls into the 7:30pm Rabbitohs-Storm match (or 8pm the event of extra time).
The Allianz solution is a dog’s breakfast that robs both the Sharks and Roosters of a stand alone final as a reward for their season (something their fans are ropable about), and which will result in an overall lower total crowd than if both Remondis and Allianz were used.
NRL not covering itself in glory with the JWH citing
The NRL seems to have moved away from the idea that rugby league is a contact sport.
We are all in favour of minimising head contact and concussion (and I have blogged about it in the past), but we cannot deny that rugby league is a contact sport. People do get hurt. Which isn’t to sound unsympathetic, it’s just a fact.
And it can happen is many different ways. At one end of the spectrum is the vile, nasty, intentional and premeditated act of lunacy. Leg twists come to mind. At the other is pure accident.
The Match Review Committee’s remit is (or should be) to work out when to take accident off the table and apply a judgement of intent, whether it falls into intentional, careless, reckless or any other bucket.
The JWH citing seems to have got this all wrong (and it may be over before you even read this!!).
With large bodies moving at speed for 80 minutes (or is that 55-60 minutes these days?), collisions will occur and, as any human movement expert would testify, it’s very hard to change a direction (or angle) of motion unless you have something upon which to brace and change that direction. Momentum and gravity seem to be subjects too complicated for some MRC members, and in which case they shouldn’t be allowed to make decisions based on a topic on which they appear to have little knowledge.
The MRC have deemed that JWH struck the Rabbitohs’ Chris McQueen with a forearm on purpose, despite being off balance as a result having just spun around 360 degrees in a genuine try scoring situation.
What the MRC seems to be saying is that JWH was not half protecting himself from a player who, on account of JWH’s speed of rotation, loomed into his peripheral vision at high speed. And they don’t appear to acknowledge any room for him trying to palm McQueen off in order to perhaps score a try (given his proximity to the line).
By citing him they have declared that, in the MRC’s opinion, he was lashing out in callous fashion, and happy to give up the chance to score a try at a poignant moment in a precariously placed match, just so he could score a cheap shot (which didn’t involve kneeing or eye gouging or testicle grabbing, acts with which he has never been associated).
Anyone looking at the incident in real-time can see quite clearly what I’m talking about.
The only thing that is counting against JWH is past misdemeanours.
Unless the lawyer helping to defend the charge tonight is an infant, it should be a very quick and positive result. Denying a semi final for this incident would be shameful.
One other thing … the MRC have now implicitly admitted is that injury must coincide with an act of foul play.
How else to explain that they allow knees and eye gouges to remain uncited, despite both bringing the game into disrepute like no post-match press conference can, while alienating a new generation of rugby league players and parents?
Titans complaint obscures the real issue
The video referee has made some clangers this year. You almost have to wonder if they have a ‘first try scorer’ of ‘margin’ bet on the game sometimes.
Dean Whare, Kevin Gordon, the list goes on … far too long.
The weekend’s no-try ruling against the Titans for what was actually a clear try highlights once again the issue of competence. Perhaps it’s technology, though I don’t believe the video referees are watching the replays on their mobile phone. They have what they need, so I have to go back to incompetence.
Unfortunately, while this is an issue that requires urgent remediation in the off season, it was obscured by nonsense headlines that it cost the Titans a finals birth (they didn’t win, let alone come near beating the Storm by 100 points, so it didn’t), and a whole lot of noise about golden point (very valid, and you know my views on this stain on the game, but which helped obscure referee performance).
Is the job of a video referee so stressful in practice that they are frozen into being unable to make a correct decision?
The NRL Mad Monday begins with a DUI for the Eels’ Mitch Allgood. Personally, this is a little disappointing given recent positive stories I’ve read about him and his community work, but at least the DUI didn’t stand for Dwarves Unceremoniously Incinerated. And he didn’t ‘total’ a car with a street pole. Still, it’s a dangerous, if not downright stupid offence.
I have a feeling each club has a pro forma statement at the ready, which includes terms such as ‘hindsight’, ‘childish’, and ‘meant no harm’.
The NRL actually has some catching up to do in the Mad Monday stakes, and teams aren’t going to reach the pinnacle of bad behaviour, as set by the AFL this year, by harbour cruising like the Panthers. There are no wheelchairs out there for the most part. There’s always the after party, post-docking. There’s still hope.