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Becoming champions is about big-game mentality

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George Riley George Riley | 10:48 UK time, Thursday, 13 September 2012

After the undercard fights and the long muscle-flexing walk to the ring, it's time for the main event.

The 27-round jostle for positions has seen Wigan clinch the League Leaders' Shield, champions Leeds finish down in fifth again and Wakefield seal an impressive play-off spot. But now the action really starts.

Like it or loathe it, the play-off system culminating in the Grand Final has become the way our champions are crowned. You cannot dispute the drama and theatre that it produces. The Grand Final is one huge occasion, 80 minutes of sporting brutality through a wall of noise at a sell-out Old Trafford, to find the season's heavyweight champion.

It may or may not be fair but I love it. Every team knows the season finishes in October. No squad will be thinking during their wintery pre-season hills runs that if they can perform well through 27 rounds, then it is job done.

Leeds Rhinos celebrate winning the Grand Final in 2011

Leeds came from fifth place in the regular season to clinch the 2011 Grand Final. Photo: Getty

The higher you finish, the bigger your play-off advantage, but becoming champions is about momentum and big-game mentality. And there is rarely an undeserving name lifting the trophy on that Saturday October evening in Manchester.

That said, there do remain elements to the system that are in my opinion unnecessary. In a system unique to any sport, the top-ranked winning team from week one are allowed to choose who they want to play in their qualifying semi-final.

I am still to see the benefit of this for either side. The team with the dubious advantage of this clubcall seldom wants to make such a decision. The selected opponents are understandably fired up even more.

In terms of this year's rivals, the two Ws are the two overwhelming favourites. Wigan and Warrington have been the two outstanding teams over the course of the season and, if all goes to plan, they will contest the Grand Final.

I can only see five teams with a shot of going all the way. Hull FC, sliding Huddersfield and surprise package Wakefield have done nothing to convince me they can extend their seasons by anything further than a week. I would give the Wildcats a shout at Leeds, though, just because of the jitters that playing such a huge underdog can give a home side in a big west Yorkshire derby.

St Helens and Leeds are the two sides who have proved they know how to reach Old Trafford on a regular basis, regardless of regular-season form. For that reason I would not write either of them off.

And Catalan Dragons have picked up some big scalps this year in proving they are now close to the real deal. I see no reason at all why they cannot shake up these play-offs with their fierce up-front combat and effervescent Scott Dureau-inspired backs play.

Week one's two qualifying play-offs will tell us a lot about the strength of the top four clubs' title credentials (the top four sides are have an "extra life" in the play-offs and can still recover if they lose in week one).

The Dragons' trip to Wigan will be as tough as it gets. Trent Robinson's side have beaten St Helens, Warrington and Leeds this year but not the Warriors, who have come out on top in both meetings. Robinson is a popular coach and I know the team are keen to send him out on a high before he heads back to Australia.

Their performance in this fixture will be key to their play-off hopes, likewise those of Wigan whose own feelings of dominance will be strengthened by a home win. An upset would really shake up the Grand Final hierarchy.

Likewise Warrington, dominant last year but surprisingly undone by in-form Leeds in the play-offs, desperately need a commanding start against a Saints side still desperate to end their own run of Grand Final defeats. Saints have appeared in, and lost, the last five Grand Finals. Their week one clash with Warrington could be an absolute stunner.

In one of these teams will be a Grand Final-winning star waiting to shine. It could be Sam Tomkins, Brett Hodgson, Dureau, James Roby, or Ryan Hall. The beauty of this competition is that right now we have absolutely no idea.


  • Comment number 1.

    PLay-offs aren't really fair in the sense that you've a Challenge cup to decide the best team in one-off knock-out rugby. Feel that the 'League winners' shoudl be those who perform best over the season, not those who perform well over a specific three weeks. Howeevr, you can't deny it's exciting and brings more money into the game.
    The one thing that I would change is the complicated format. Teams play each other, some teams have to win one game, some can lose and get a second change againt the winner of another game, at one point you get to pick your opponent. For somebody with a passing interest, rather than a religious follower of the game, it's off-putting and I can't help feel if its simpler to understand then more people might watch....

  • Comment number 2.

    What a bbc journalism standards are in a decline that can only be called nosedive, the RL blog usually stands out as a beacon of remaining standards, usually...if Hull and Huddersfield will not make it past an extra week can George explain how they will both lose their first post season match, as they play each other!

  • Comment number 3.

    Does george know anything about rugby league? Hull or Giants have to make past week one. Leeds will do well to make it to the second match they looked devoid of ideas and skill when taken apart by a team with only twelve men. i think the loiners will settle for that if it means the last hoorah for mac.

  • Comment number 4.

    #2 and #3 I'm not sure which bit of a further week you don't understand. We havent started yet! And whether they are fortunate enough to be playing each other or not does not mean I have to be convinced by one of them, which is the point I'm clearly making. But thanks again for the helpful and constructive comments.
    #1 agree on the complicated nature .... And I am a religious follower rather than casual observer.

  • Comment number 5.

    Well I am cackling in glee and anticipation, and rubbing my hands to boot. I don't know about you fellas in Blighty, but in Malaysia I'll have all the games live on Satellite except the second game on Saturday, which will be delayed to accomodate the French Top XIV rugby. The only thing I would change about the Play-offs would be the Club Call - I think the excitement and anticipation would be enhanced by knowing in advance whom you would play in any given circumstances.

    If the recent commentators are to be believed, St Helens are the only team to have triumphed away at the Halliwell Jones this season... Maybe cackling is not a strong enough word for it! I'm hoping this will be the season for Warrington - we've never made the Superleague Grand Final, I think, let alone won it,

  • Comment number 6.

    Can't wait, let the fun begin !

  • Comment number 7.

    Hi George

    Before I say anything further can I just tweek your reference to St Helens and their appearances at Grand Finals?

    Saints have appeared at the last SIX Grand Finals. They have won one and lost five.

    That gives matters a slightly different complexion and it is noted that they are the only team to have ever appeared at six consecutive championship finals, I believe, in the history of the sport. But please don't let the fact that we have lost the last five of those six deter you from letting everyone know we won the first one in 2006! In fact, we won the treble (that's Challenge Cup, League Leaders Shield and Championship) all in one season. You could say we won the quadruple because we then went on to win the World Club Challenge in 2007. In fact, in 2007 we won the Challenge Cup and the League Leader's Shield but failed to win the double treble because while we appeared at the Grand Final, we experienced the first of our losses.

    Until I watched the Olympics and Paralympics I was determined not to go to the Grand Final again because I haven't seen us win there and the loss last year was the most painful because it came about due to injury to three of our key players in the second half when we were in a very useful lead and had the Rhinos on the ropes. However, having discovered a few Para/Olympians who have tried and failed a number of times but come through in the end, I think it may be worth the risk of watching yet another failure, should the chance arise, just in case it turns out to be another success.

    As for other teams' chances: all Warrington need to do is man up. Either that or not be as arrogant as they might have been last year. Whether it was lack of confidence or too much of it which saw them capitulate to Leeds I do believe the reason for their early exit was psychological rather than ability. They are certainly looking like a champion side and to be honest I think they are the only team that does look like a champion side. Wigan are still too predictable. If the forwards of any team man up for the full 80 then they are not fearsome. They will try petty tactics and Sam will have his sulks if things aren't going their way but Warrington already have the measure of them and so I am sure others could do it too. The Dragons should be able to but their defence lets them down. They are either not coached well enough in defence or they have a poor attitude towards it. I'd like to see Wakey get through the first round because they play attractive rugby (which should be rewarded IMO!) and work very hard for each other. They deserve some reward for their amazing efforts this year. Leeds have been atrocious this year and don't deserve to be in a Grand Final. They don't even have the momentum they had last year to look to. They are quite simply awful. Huddersfield and Hull are unknown quantities to me as both have been utterly thrilling and utterly dire. Both could be either this weekend, who knows?

    So far as the playoffs per se are concerned: I enjoy them. I don't see them, or the Grand Final, as the most important competition. I enjoy all three of our competitions: Challenge Cup, the league and the Championship. They could be better organised, better marketed and (in the case of our knock out comps) better supported, but they all have their attractions and I value them all.

  • Comment number 8.

    Always look for to the play-offs. Want Wigan to win but still looking forward to many good games.

    Think Wigan win beat Catalan because we don't often do back to back defeats, Saints to beat Warrington in last minute, Wakefield to beat Leeds with Sykes drop goal. Meanwhile Hull and Huddersfield not sure on but think FC might win.

  • Comment number 9.

    Hi George
    Great blog as usual! As a pie eater I'm keen for the Warriors to win, but feel the Wolves are the form team going into the play offs! I think the Rhinos have shown that anyone can win it on the day, regardless of form. The overly complex nature of the playoffs dosn't, in my humble opinion, detract from the big day - get rid of the club call aspect and then I think it would be the finished product.

    I had huge reservations when the Grand Final format was announced, and I'm pleased to say my doubts were proved groundless. The most pleasing thing for me this year has been the form of the Dragons (other than the Pies winning the league leaders shield of course!).

    Keep flying the flag on 5Live - the coverage this year has been much appreciated (particularly your gentle education of Nicky Campbell).

  • Comment number 10.

    #7 yep that's true - my point really is that they've lost 5 on the spin since they last won it. PS thanks for the GNR support

  • Comment number 11.

    It will be quite interesting to see the crowds this weekend with Wigan getting 20000+ last week I'd expect there to be at least 15000 on tonight

  • Comment number 12.

    I like the play offs as you get some really good games in there between the top teams and not so many predictable hammerings.

    Hope we (Wigan) win it, but if I was betting on it, I'd go for Wire which pains me to say it.

    Attendence tonight won't be that many (7,000 if you're lucky) 'cos it's not included in the season ticket. And that's deffo a problem with the play-offs. Hardly anyone goes. Both Saints-Wigan play-off games last year added together had less attendence than the SL game at the Piedome.

  • Comment number 13.

    I love the playoffs. Those who say it isn't fair have yet to come up with a better alternative. Can you imagine finishing top after the regular season and reaching the playoffs, then enter into the end-of-season playoffs in a 1v8, 2v7 etc format and lose to the bottom club? Is that any fairer? Not at all.

    I would urge everyone to embrace it. It is brilliant. I love it.

  • Comment number 14.

    I prefer the system the NRL has adopted this year.

    After the first round (1v4, 2v3, 5v8, 6v7) the draw is pre-bracketed so that the loser of 1v4 always plays the winner of 5v8 and the winner of that one always meets the loser of the 2v3 first round match in the semi-final. This ensures that there can't be a repeat match-up before the Grand Final (which is at a neutral venue anyway).

    Even if the clubcall is removed, under the current system there's a good chance that the semi-finals would both be repeats of first round matches with the same teams hosting.

  • Comment number 15.

    Hurrah! A rugby league blog. Welcome back George.
    Will be happy if there isn't another Leeds v Saints final - no offence to either club but all good things must come to an end.
    As for the play-offs; reduce from 'top' 8 to top 6, make it straight knock out so neutrals can understand what the heck is going on and get rid of the ridiculous club call. Otherwise, look forward to this every year and can't wait for some cracking rugby. The big question is - can Warrington finally lift the trophy??


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