Opinion: Time to get rid of Premiership play-off format

Stuart Cameron suggests an alternative which he believes will re-energise the Scottish Cup and give more clubs something to play for in the second half of the season

Hawick host Currie Chieftains in the Premiership play-off final at Mansfield Park on Saturday. Image: Ian Gidney
Hawick host Currie Chieftains in the Premiership play-off final at Mansfield Park on Saturday. Image: Ian Gidney

ALTHOUGH I have been covering international rugby for ITV and TalkSPORT for over 10 years, my heart is in the Scottish club game, and in particular in the Borders. I was born in Edinburgh and have been passionate about Borders rugby for as long as I can remember, and have been living in the South of Scotland for the whole of this century.

Over the past few years, I’ve had real issues with the play-off system for the Tennent’s Premiership league.  While there is a place for play-off rugby I really don’t get why we have to have play-offs to decide the winner of the top league in the club game.

This weekend we will see Hawick and Currie Chieftains go toe-to-toe at Mansfield Park to decide which team is crowned champions, but really, I have always been signed up to the camp of ‘a league is a league and a cup is a cup’. Whoever wins the league should be crowned champions. Period.


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In National One, Two and Three this season, like all seasons, the team who finishes on top is crowned champions and they will have a trophy to show for it. No play-offs in those leagues and rightly so. History will show the winners of the Premiership league to be the team which wins the final – not the team who finished top of the table.

This year it will be contested between the top two in the league, but the fact that a team in fourth place (which happened to be Marr but could have been Selkirk), finishing 29 points behind the league table-toppers, had a chance to make the final based on a one-off game makes a complete mockery of what a league is supposed to be.

As we know in rugby, anything can happen and an early red card can make it very difficult for any team to win.  But the fact that a team which won just over half of their games [10 out of 18] in the regular season could end up as champions cannot be right.

This hasn’t happened yet but it COULD happen and if/when it does (that a fourth placed team could have the trophy in the cabinet while an unbeaten team gets nothing), then how can that ever be considered a fair result?

 

I have spoken to most of the coaches from the teams in the Premiership, and I know that the format is agreed upon by all the Premiership clubs, but my question has been: why have they gone with it?  The reasons have been mainly that it gives clubs who are in the top end of the league one extra game at least to get revenue in. It also gives a club well off the pace the chance to nip in through the back door and spoil the party of a team which has performed much better than them over the 18 games.  The third reason is that it keeps interest going for the whole season and avoids the dead rubber games at the end.

I get all those points of view, but at the heart of any good competition you must have a set of rules that gives credibility and prevents it from potentially looking foolish if a quirky couple of results at the end of the season leads to the fourth placed team suddenly becoming Scottish Champions.

Of course, there are always critics who are quick to point the finger and shout from the rooftops about what is wrong with something, so it is important to suggest an alternative system which would work better.  This is where I make my suggestion for the future, and I sincerely hope that the Premiership clubs will at least look at it, consider it to be a fair proposal, and then drive it forward.

I believe this proposal would satisfy all clubs’ concerns and make it a far more exciting league which would improve not only the Premiership but also the leagues lower down, and at the same time give the Cup competition (which has shrunk from crowds of 24,000 and more for the final in the old days to around the 4,000 mark presently) a bit of a boost.

So here’s the plan ….

1 – Start all leagues mid-August so that they potentially have a chance to be completed by December (or early January if weather is bad that year). That would leave the latter part of January and February for inter-district competitions and the chance of a club international (or two) for the more ambitious players, while other players could use the winter period for a break following a busy season.

Do we really need the odd league game running into April and May as it does now? I don’t think so.  Luckily the new 10-team format for next season (which I applaud) should prevent that from happening – with the added benefit of clearing the way for those who want to take part in 7s tournaments to do so, without unplayed games encroaching.

2 – The Cup/Shield/Plate/Bowl competitions are in need of an overhaul. At the moment National Divisions Two and Three do not have any participants. Berwick were unable to defend their Shield title as the Shield is now for regional teams only. The Plate has disappeared and the Bowl has become a regional competition.   My suggestion would be to have five Cup competitions in March – quarters, semi and finals day. One Cup for each division would give each club a five-in-one chance of reaching the final at BT Murrayfield. Those are really good odds and a big incentive for any club to play on the hallowed turf.

3 – Here’s the big change to replace the play-offs. The Cup competitions would be seeded from the positions each team finishes in the league at the end of the season.  So the winner of the Premiership would face the eighth team in the first round of the Premiership Cup, the second placed side would take on 7th, and so on.  This would be a separate Cup competition which would give all clubs the chance to have at least two games in March with the losing four from the first round going into a Premiership Plate competition.  This would be applied right across the divisions, culminating in all five finals played at BT Murrayfield on a celebration end-of-season Saturday.

This would be a tremendous incentive for all clubs to get as high up the league as they can, meaning no dead rubbers. The key point is that whoever ends up top of the league after the 18 games is crowned Champions.

For the teams in ninth and tenth positions their season is over. The tenth side would be relegated with one-up and one-down. The ninth placed team would remain in the same division.

I’ve kept it very simple, but I believe it ticks all the boxes. Yes, we could go into depth and start talking about relegation/promotion play-offs for the ninth placed finisher in the Premiership agains and the runner-up in National One and this kind of thing (and I would welcome that as I’ve seen some tremendous games in the past when that system was in place), but you start moving into areas of complication whereby the ninth placed team has no other rugby left to play while the second placed team from the lower division will have played potentially several games in the Cup, so let’s not go there and keep it simple for all to understand.

This proposal is neat and tidy, sets out clearly the different parts of the season for the different competitions without the need for over-lapping, and is something spectators and clubs can all easily understand.

I think as well as solving the problem of Premiership play-offs that I and others have, it would breathe life into the Cup competition and make every league game meaningful at the end of the season for all 50 clubs, no matter where they are in the league.


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About Stuart Cameron 5 Articles
Edinburgh-born Stuart has been ITV Border and TalkSPORT’s rugby correspondent for over a decade and is founder of Borders Rugby TV & Radio. A former triple Scottish age-group high jump champion, he started his sporting and music broadcast career at BBC Radio Oxford and Fox FM before returning to Scotland in 1999 to live in the Scottish Borders, where he broadcast for Radio Borders for many years as well as working freelance for the Daily Record, The Scotsman, Southern Reporter and Border Telegraph newspapers. His own rugby career as a fullback ended at the age of 14.

15 Comments

  1. There is a saying that ‘the league table doesn’t lie’. None more so than this season. A team that had gone unbeaten in the league were within seconds of losing their rightful tag of champions. Well done, Hawick! The great roll of honour grows again. (And hard lines, Currie, who saw their chance of redemption from last season’s disappointment). I’m all for the cup being given greater prominence. I’ve tried to see when the remaining rounds are scheduled, but the SRU website only gives details of the next round.

  2. The play offs were brought in to offset any potential advantage gained when pro players were released to the clubs. This made sense especial when the pro player differential per match was done away with. Makes sense to do away with it now though many of the clubs, coaches and players still enjoy the excitement it brings.
    If we are to do away with it then we must make sure that we replace it with something as exciting and income generating.
    Starting the leagues mid August is a no go in my eyes, players, support staff and supporters need a break and since Covid people have changed their lifestyles wanting to go out and do more in August and September.
    Play leagues til end Jan/start Feb. I like the idea of Cups for each league which could be played Feb/ March/ start April. Play off home ans away 9th and 2nd in respective leagues would be interesting and would hopefully ensure the right teams in their respective leagues.
    Knock out or seeded pools in the cup, preference for 2 pools leading to the finals day at Murrayfield.
    Basically club rugby Sept – 1st week April.

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    • Agree with you about mid August start. We already start last weekend in Aug which I think is to early. Leagues used to start in October though I think that was the home or away format.

      The key thing is variety. And that doesn’t come from a change of competition if you are playing the same teams.

      Stepping into other sports timelines like cricket won’t help either.

  3. well said stuart, I think rugby clubs and supporters think the guys that play for the club have no other interests outside rugby between january-june hence the reason for the near year round season in amateur rugby. Scrap the playoffs, if you finish 1st you’ve earned the trophy as Hawick have thoroughly deserved this year.

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  4. Don’t agree with the play-off idea at all. Hawick topped the league this season, so to me they are the rightful Champions (even if they were to lose a one off game at the weekend).

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  5. play-offs are a copy of US sports, originally. And they do provide extra interest and income, things everyone (I think) wants and applauds.

    However I will add 2 points.
    First play offs in rugby are fairer if any team(s) have to lose proportionately more players to their national team than others – that does not apply to the premiership.
    Second, if Stuart’s alternative does replicate the extra interest and revenue, then it is well worth consideration. All that is needed is to convince the clubs. Thier competition and their decision IMHO

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  6. Couldn’t agree more on getting rid of play offs. Unnecessary extra games with no benefit.

    You will need to share more on your cup idea though. I always thought a cup/shield/plate was to play teams you wouldn’t usually play so making it across divisions rather than within. And which divisions are you thinking about National leagues only or regionals?

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    • Hi Dom – the old days of Hawick playing St Boswells or Ayr playing Dunbar are long gone. The pluses back then were that the minnows got a chance to go head-to-head with the big boys, but with health and safety being a big issue nowadays with the difference in Premiership clubs and regional/lower NL clubs in terms of fitness/power etc. Unlike football you rarely get any cup shocks and often mis-matches with 60+ points scores does nothing really for the players. I was concentrating solely on the five national divisions for next season. Five new cup competitions with the 10 clubs from each division having their own cup competition after the league season had finished. For 10 of the 50 clubs in national rugby appearing at the national stadium is a great incentive for players who normally would never get near BT Murrayfield’s pitch. This system would enable it to happen. Lower down in regional leagues we have the Bowl competition but my article was focusing on the national leagues only at this stage.

      • The Health and Safety argument doesn’t cut it for me, if you do what happened in the past and each round brings in different teams, then by the time you get to the 4th or 5th round, when the premiership teams enter, it’s going to be mostly National 1 and 2 teams anyway.

        The current cup competitions restrict the number of clubs that have a realistic chance of getting to Murrayfield to about 6 or 7 in each competition. When Dalziel were in National 3, the cup was a distraction and held no interest as there was no chance we were getting to Murrayfield. The old system of teams dropping down into the Shield, Bowl and Plate meant that pretty much every team had a chance to make a final. Getting a crack at a team from a league (or 2) above you with the “safety net” of another cup competition brought some excitement into those games.

        At least the change this season to expand the national rounds of the Shield has meant a few games against teams outwith West 1 and 2 for change.

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      • Thanks Stuart. Appreciate the reply.

        It’s an interesting idea. I agree the days when clubs were drawn out of a hat in the cup are long gone and rightly so.

        My only issue is playing the same teams again. There is some merit in pooling – Prem and Nat 1. Nat 2&3 Nat 4 and Regional 1 maybe after an initial couple of rounds of the regions.

    • Agree that the playoffs are unnecessary..the contributors have pointed out that a chance result in one match can overturn the efforts over the rest of the season…

  7. Have to agree. Play offs only came into being as a take away from US sport to add in some extra jeopardy to boost TV audiences. The 89 Liverpool Arsenal title decider added fuel to this thanks to the vagaries of fixtures and the way they were impacted post Hillsborough. There is however no TV coverage of Scottish club rugby thanks to the SRU zeal for ensuring that the club guys don’t overshadow the fake franchises (even the online coverage that used to be quite decent is now reduced to an amateurish much mash that makes Viaplay look watcheable). Stuart’s suggestions look eminently sensible and attractive….sadly that means they will be totally ignored.

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  8. Have always thought team finishing top wins the league. Few years ago Montpellier finshed top but lost in playoff, seems so unfair.

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  9. A separate competition between the top four with the winners picking up a minor trophy is fine but the primary competition should always be the league and the winners should always be the team finishing top of the table.

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  10. Correct, Stuart. Play-offs are essentially irrelevant one-off affairs (ok if your star player isn’t crocked, etc.) tending to devalue a season-long league campaign, unless they are necessary to determine some form of promotion / relegation outcome, or perhaps to provide a big-money media-fest platform to benefit the sport…..

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