Sport is about finding out who is the best. But what is the best way to find out who is the best? In 1998 it was decided that the best Rugby league team in the Europe would be decided by a play-off series, culminating in one ‘Grand’ Final. Rugby League although started in England has been excelled at more in Australia, resulting in English Rugby League unashamedly using many pieces of Australian jargon, finals in Australia are always ‘Grand’. Contrary to what the Sky Sports ‘Jedi mind tricks’ would lead you to believe, play-offs are nothing new. Play-offs followed by a championship final were used in Rugby League in England long before the Sky ‘revolution’. In the season 1903-04 Bradford FC were crowned champions after play-offs and there wasn’t a television camera anywhere to be seen, let alone a high definition one. Then from 1907 through to 1973, save a couple of years in the sixties, the champions were the team that won the end of season play-offs. To Americans and Australians, who love and embrace play-offs, the concept of an end of season finale probably seems like the only way to decide champions. To a generation of Rugby League fans in this country who had only known the football style, whoever finishes top after every team has played each other twice, way of determining the champions, the re-birth of the play-offs in 1998 caused several distrusting murmurings and many grumbles about the unfairness of it all.
The search for ultimate fairness in sport is always likely to be in vain, because sport, being the great metaphor for life that it is, isn’t fair. As long as everybody knows at the start of the season how the champions are going to determined, and nothing changes over the course of that season, then that is as fair as you can ask for. Is the top of the table system fair? If Manchester United and Manchester City are going head to head for the title, is it fair that the outcome is decided by results against other teams? Over the course of the season one of the title contenders could play a lot more ‘in form’ teams than the other. One contender could have to play at somewhere like Blackburn on a freezing cold day in February, when Blackburn are scrapping to avoid relegation. The other contender could play them on a beautiful sunny day in May, with Bolton’s Premiership future already assured and the player’s bodies at the Ewood Park but their minds in the Bahamas. On the all too rare occasion that the football title is decided on the last day of the season, it is almost unheard for the two title rivals to be going head to head. This season for example United will travel to Sunderland, whilst City are at home to QPR. So there could be a scenario where City will be champions if they beat QPR and United don’t win at Sunderland. That would be like the heavyweight champion of the world drawing his bout but losing his belt because on the same day another contender beat a journeyman pro convincingly inside three rounds. Fair?
The ludicrously named Champions League is regarded as the biggest, most prestigious club competition in the World, and certainly the competition any club in Europe would most like to win. Teams from all over Europe are split into little leagues, then the top two from each league make up the last sixteen teams, who then take part in a straight knock out competition until the winner is identified. That’s beginning to sound suspiciously like a play-off system is good enough for the biggest prize in European football.
The final promotion place into each of the top four divisions of English football is decided by a play-off series. It could be argued that the outcome of these play-offs have a bigger impact on the clubs involved, than if the title itself was decided by play-offs. Winning or losing a play-off for the title wouldn't directly effect the club's future the way the promotion play-offs do, in that no matter what the outcome the club would still be playing in the same division the following season. The promotion play-offs could have a massive effect on the clubs future, especially promotion to the Premier League.
In 1989 when the English football Championship was decided by the two challengers playing each other on the last day of the season, football fans were delighted with the exciting prospect of the title being decided in that fashion. That night Arsenal had to beat Liverpool by two clear goals at Anfield to take the title away from Liverpool, the fact that they did so with a goal in the last minute, afforded the match complete legendary status. Imagine every season coming down to the last game of the season with the two title contenders playing each other, then you have imagined the play-offs. Another advantage of the play-offs is that everybody knows well in advance exactly when the title will be decided, and it quickly becomes established as a permanent fixture in the sporting calendar. One reason for the Superbowl being the most watched one day sports event in the world is because we know that it’s going be on a Sunday, either late January or early February every single year. On this side of the Atlantic we know watching it will mean staying up well past midnight. This regularity allows fans to look forward to it every year and make plans to make an event out of it. We also know we are going to see two exceptional teams playing each other for the ultimate prize, one group of players will live out their greatest dream, the other group will be left distraught, with their dreams in tatters. That is the glorious drama of sport.
One of the qualities we tend to admire most in our sports stars is the ability to get the job done when it matters most. We won’t remember Jack Nicklaus for his wins in the Philadelphia Golf Classic, or the Sahara Invitational, we will remember him for his eighteen professional major championships and his almost super human ability to peak for the big occasion. In years to come we won’t be reminiscing about Roger Federer’s wins in Milan and Rotterdam, we will remember the triumphs in Paris and Melbourne and the domination in New York and Wimbledon. Play-offs provide team sports stars with the opportunity to show just how good they really are. A big reason as to why Michael Jordan is widely acknowledged as the greatest basketball player ever is that the six times he won the NBA championship with the Chicago Bulls he was named Most Valuable Player of the Championship series on every occasion. If the game was down to the last few ticks of the clock and the Bulls found themselves a point behind, there was no doubt whose hands they wanted the ball in. Once the ball got into Jordan’s hands it would be one of those glorious goose pimple moments that watching greatness at great moments can provide. Bulls fans weren’t hoping he’d score, they were expecting he’d score. It would be like watching an episode of Colombo, you knew who was going to win, you were only watching to find out exactly how he would do it. Then there would be that glorious swish sound, the ball not even touching the sides as it went through the hoop to determine the outcome of the game. Joe Montana and Tom Brady are revered as the two great quarterbacks of the modern era in American football, not for the numbers and statistics they racked up over the years, but because of their cold blooded performances in the play-offs, where they were able to perform at their best when it mattered most, time and time again. Would we ever have known just how great players like this were or are, if their teams were winning titles by finishing a few points clear of the other teams after a long season?
Besides, when every Rugby League season ends with two top teams bashing hell out of each other in front of 75,000 at Old Trafford, in a match of immense intensity that could well be decided by a last minute score, who wants fair? It is fitting that the drama of having one game to decide who rules them all, is played out at a ‘Theatre’.
To read blurb and sample chapters of my published rugby league book read my hub http://lupine-rob.hubpages.com/hub/Spirit-of-55