CHRIS KIRWAN SAYS: Sceptics proved wrong on playoffs
12:10pm Thursday 24th May 2012 in Chris Kirwan
WHEN the playoffs arrived in rugby they were greeted with scepticism.
They were a brash concept; like something from America or, even worse, a blatant plagerisation of a format from the 13-man code.
Some dropped the ‘L’ from the playoffs when they were introduced to the English Premiership. It was seen as a moneymaking scheme; what was wrong with the team that finished top of the pile lifting the trophy?
But they have grudgingly been accepted and have breathed life into the sport over the border.
Rugby barely caused a ripple outside of the Six Nations period in England yet the playoffs capture the imagination.
Talksport, a radio station largely devoted to angry men bursting blood vessels while venting about Arsene Wenger, Carlos Tevez or Joey Barton, provides full-match commentary from all three encounters.
The Premiership ramps up as the battle for the top four intensifies and the subsequent knockout stages have provided entertaining fare.
Saturday will see table-toppers Harlequins take on in-form Leicester in front of 80,000 fans at Twickenham.
England may not have provided any European semi-finalists this season but they know how to put a show on.
It’s no surprise that the Celtic League followed their lead and there have been no regrets.
The Pro12 cops a load of flak from England and France for the way that under-strength sides are often turned out while the big guns are rested for the Heineken Cup.
But the recent Ospreys versus Munster semi-final was a great example of what the league can produce with the Welsh region putting the Irish province to the sword with some dazzling attack and abrasive defence.
It will be the same on Sunday when the Os head to Dublin to try and deny European champions Leinster the double.
The structure of the season, with fixtures taking place while teams are without the senior and age-grade internationals, made playoffs a necessity.
But they have also enhanced the product – there were very few dead rubbers in the run-in, Ulster and the Scarlets were pipped to the last berth by Glasgow while the Ospreys needed to earn a home semi-final.
They produce great drama and it wouldn’t be a surprise if the number of teams involved were increased a la France’s Top 14, where teams placed three to six play quarter-finals.
Hopefully it won’t go as far as Super League (eight of the 14 franchises qualify) but the format will evolve.
It doesn’t always work. The Principality Premiership’s first attempt at playoffs was farcical with teams almost wanting to lose rather than have an already drawn-out season continue.
They still don’t capture the imagination and could well be scrapped next season but frontline leagues have been enhanced by their introduction.
In time football may even join the party. Money rules and the prospect of a winner-takes-all showdown, maybe even in Dubai, would have owners seeing £s.
It’s terrific when dramatic conclusions are ‘organic’ like Manchester City dramatically pipping United to the Premier League title at the death.
But the prospect of a 90-minute showdown like Liverpool against Arsenal in 1989, which happened because of the tragic events at Hillsborough, might be hard to resist. Even if football doesn’t follow, the playoffs are here to stay in rugby and bring what is a minority sport to a wider audience.
Twickenham and the Royal Dublin Society will play host to two cracking games this weekend. After initial scepticism, thankfully the playoffs have been embraced.