Last weekend saw two hotly contested Aviva Premiership Semi-Finals, with Exeter Chiefs and Wasps progressing to the final. For the second year running these were the top two seeds and home semi-finalists. Last Word on Rugby makes the case for scrapping the play-off semi-finals and going straight to a first vs second grand final.
The games at Sandy Park and the Ricoh Arena were certainly spectacles worthy of knockout rugby semi-finals, maybe even finals. But they clearly took their toll, particularly on Saracens players. They lost Chris Ashton, Michael Rhodes and Mako Vunipola to injury throughout the game. But the biggest loss felt was for the British and Irish Lions side.
News in of Billy Vunipola withdrawing from the tour on Sunday evening shook the squad make-up. This extends the debate further about player safety and, the rejection of a ten month season by the RPA. For example Saracens’ six Lions already had to come through a bruising Champions Cup Final the weekend before, and could have had a Premiership final to play–all before tackling New Zealand.
It could be argued that the Aviva Premiership semi-finals that are ‘cut from the calendar’ if post-season international tours are to remain…and to include all the premium players from English rugby.
Champions Don’t Finish in Fourth Place
Even the most die-hard Leicester Tigers fans would admit they have had a pretty poor season, with numerous heavy defeats and coaching changes. Yet they were less than two minutes from the final next Saturday evening. The Aviva Premiership would have lost a lot of credibility if in the event that the Tigers were triumphant at Twickenham. Should this have been a possibility at all?
Only Saracens have won the title from fourth place, a position they only reached on points-difference on the final day of the 2014/15 season. It is important to remember that this is a league competition which should reward long-term consistency.
So is it fair that a couple of big performances in the play-offs can render a side title holders?
Why Bother Topping the Table?
It is an established statistic that the best team over 22 rounds normally doesn’t become title winners. While there is no official recognition for this development, it highlights another flaw in the current model. Indeed, Wasps have never topped the table until 16/17, yet have four Premiership titles in the play-off era.
In the 2000’s they became experts at ‘timing their run’ towards the end of the season, as Exeter have done this term. Therefore the advantage of finishing first is debatable. Looking at another example, in 2014/15 Northampton Saints topped the table but played and lost out to Saracens. A full season’s toil, and ultimate success lost in a matter 80 minutes.
Confirming What We Already Know
Finally, given the home side [i.e. first or second place season finishers] has won the vast majority of semi-final games to date, surely it makes sense to ‘avoid the possibility’ of an undeserved winner.
The season finale at Twickenham is not going to be scrapped because that date is too commercially successful–some have suggested that a League title be awarded only. But in making it a winners takes all, top-two draw, that could be a straight shootout between the best two teams.
In the absence of Billy Vunipola, James Haskell has been named his replacement in the Lions tour party of 41.
“Main photo credit”