The NRL announced earlier today a proposed top 10 finals series from 2020, with the top six getting a first week bye and seventh playing 10th and eighth playing ninth in a new ‘Wildcard Round.’
It’s a horrible idea.
The current top eight format, implemented in 2012, has been a great success. The top four teams earn a double chance (with top two teams getting at least one home final) and the bottom four play straight eliminations. Usually the best teams make the grand final, as it should be. Since 2012, five of the seven grand finals have featured two top four teams. The exceptions were Canterbury (seventh) in 2014 and North Queensland (eighth) in 2017.
The danger of this top 10 system is it rewards mediocrity on both sides of the finals ladder. Teams five and six, usually subject to a week one elimination final, will have the first week off (no arguments about the top four not deserving an extra week off), while teams nine and 10 are likely to have 12 wins or less. In 2018 the ninth-placed Wests Tigers were 12-12 and the 10th-placed Canberra (10-14) even further back. No team should play finals with a less than 50 per cent record. The Sydney Roosters, Melbourne, South Sydney, Cronulla-Sutherland, Penrith and Brisbane would enjoy the bye.
Based on 2018 results, Wests would have played the NZ Warriors and Canberra would have played St. George-Illawarra (their famous bogey team for a while) in the Wildcard games. Both the Dragons and Warriors finished a respectable 15-9. Imagine the uproar if they had been eliminated by the Tigers or Raiders, especially with the Raiders finishing five wins behind seventh and eighth?
Easily the best finals system is the old top five format. It was used successfully from 1973 to 1994, with as many as 16 teams competing from 1988. The top five was perfect because the minor premiers had the easiest path to the grand final and were guaranteed to make the preliminary final. Teams two and three had a double chance (of10 playing each other twice) while teams four and five played a straight knockout final. If you’d made the final five after a long season, you deserved to play finals. There was also room for fairytale runs, with Canberra winning from fourth in 1989.
The worst part of the top 10 is it seems like a blatant ploy to keep fan interest alive for as long as possible (meaning the top five will never return), which equals bigger ratings and more money for broadcasters. Wouldn’t it be better to focus on games between top teams that have a bearing on September then try to sustain interest in teams who probably won’t make it past week two of the finals?
Hopefully this top 10 idea is just a big bucket of hype, and the top eight remains when people come to their senses.