Last month, a two-conference system, designed to promote local rivalries and increase crowds, created a lot of debate.
Any suggestion to improve the uneven draw is great. With 16 teams, a genuine home-and-away competition (30 rounds) would be far too long, especially with pre-season, Origin, Test matches and finals. Round one would have to start mid-February to fit it all in. Currently, 16 teams play 24 games with one bye and some teams play each other twice in short timeframes (This year, the Wests Tigers played the Melbourne Storm twice between round two and five).
I have a suggestion. Split the competition into a Top Eight conference and Bottom Eight conference.
Based on this year’s ladder, the conferences would be:
TOP EIGHT: Sydney Roosters, Melbourne Storm, South Sydney, Cronulla-Sutherland, Penrith, Brisbane, St.George-Illawarra, NZ Warriors.
BOTTOM EIGHT: Wests Tigers, Canberra, Newcastle, Canterbury-Bankstown, North Queensland, Gold Coast, Manly-Warringah, Parramatta.
Rounds one to seven: conference round robin, every teams plays seven games in their conference.
Rounds eight to 15: eight cross-conference rounds.
Rounds 16 to 22: the second conference round robin, with another seven games in each conference.
The top eight teams would play each other twice, as do the bottom teams (with everyone playing each other once after 15 rounds). This could generate some great matches between the best teams, and there’d be less blowouts between top eight and bottom eight teams. It also means, come round 22, fans will know which teams they’ll be playing twice the following season (and can start planning trips to games). Teams who sneak into the finals will have a chance to test themselves the following season against the best sides, while strugglers can consolidate with an “easier” draw and work their way back up. It would build excitement for the final seven rounds, with some potentially great return clashes (assuming the top eight teams keep their form together).
One drawback is the conferences are dependent on performance, so there’s no guarantee of two Queensland derbies (Brisbane v North Qld at Lang Park and Townsville) or two Sydney derbies (for instance Sydney Roosters v Souths, Cronulla v St. George-Illawarra).
The weekly ladder would be combined, with the usual top eight finals series. If we’ve learnt anything from the Super Rugby AUS/NZ/South Africa conferences, it can get messy, with each conference winner earning a home final regardless of overall ladder position (in 2017, the ACT Brumbies won the Australian Conference and hosted a quarter-final, despite finishing mid-table overall). In this exercise, the Top Eight conference and Bottom Eight conference is used to provide a more balanced draw. If the conference system was used to decide finals, some worthy top eight teams would miss out and weaker teams would get through. Best to keep it all together.
The biggest benefit: with only 22 rounds, that allows three weekends off for Origin and other rep games (Pacific Tests, Women’s Origin etc), so Origin-heavy teams will be fresh for the run home. Include the three rep weekends and you have 25 weekends of footy, not including finals.