I know that not everyone is a rugby fan, or even a sports fan, and I know many a football fan probably wonders what the point is of a team finishing top of the Aviva Premiership if they can go on to lose the title in a play-off. Just ask Gloucester who finished top a number of times but failed to win the championship title. Even rugby enthusiasts wondered about the plan when the system was first introduced.
But when you realise that Rugby Union has an international tournament every year (The 6 Nations), and a series of high-profile international fixtures in the Autumn, you will understand why it turns out to be a good way of settling the outcome of the season's endeavours. Top teams can lose a lot of players to the international fixtures. The play-off system gives smaller clubs the opportunity to make headway in the league competition and we don't get the club or country debate that other sports seem to suffer from. It opens the whole thing up.
This year we're off to the final at Twickenham again at the end of May. It is a great day out and last year's final was certainly an exciting affair with the winning points scored with the final move of the match. It wasn't even that clear whether the decisive try had actually been scored and it took the TMO (third match official) a little while to sort it out.
Northampton won the title and are in with a good chance of retaining it this year having finished at the top for the first time as far as I recall. What makes it all exciting is that there are three team looking to get into the last two play-off places and all the games are important. Leicester, Exeter and Saracens are all in the mix.
Sarries are almost certain to beat London Welsh with a bonus point win. The promoted exiles haven't won a game and have only one losing bonus point all season. That would put Saracens in front of Exeter for fourth place even if they beat Sale unless they too get a bonus point win. But possibly the biggest game of all will be Leicester against Northampton. A Leicester win is a must if they want to be in the play-offs. If they lose then everything depends on the Exeter-Sale result. It is actually possible that Leicester, Saracens and Exeter could all finish with the same number of points!
The final round of matches take place this weekend and they all kick-off at the same time. A good old-fashioned final day of the season! No team will have the advantage of knowing the result of another match.
I wonder if the football premiership would look any different if it tried a new system. With 38 matches to play in a season compared to Rugby's 22 it's hard to imagine that there would be much appetite for such a play-off style deciding end to the season. Reducing the number of teams would cause an outcry no doubt and the very idea of introducing bonus points for scoring 3 or more goals or a losing bonus point for losing by only a one goal margin might seem ridiculous. But what if it meant a more meaningful international fixture list with more competitive international football to develop the national team without that club or country debate? Would fans buy into that? Probably not.
I could start rambling on about the use of technology and the the TMO and speculate how that could be used in football too. No one seems to worry about referrals slowing down a rugby game. The clock stops, the decision is reviewed, everyone gets on with the game. Imagine if the referee could ask a TMO to check for off-side or for a dive, review a possible handball or tackle before deciding on a yellow card. We can only wonder!