Analysis of Finals Series Systems

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With the AFL finals starting this weekend the NRL finals the next, Blindside Sport contributor Daniel Boss analyses the finals systems used by both codes during their existence.

One thing that I have always found fascinating is the various finals systems used in various sports. Some use very simple systems, while others use highly complex systems. Some sports around the world don’t even have a finals series, rather rewarding the team at the top of the ladder with the premiership. Australians, however, are not content with this. We want to see big games with everything on the line. It’s one of the reasons why the A-League is one of the very few Soccer leagues in the world to have a finals system. I’ll go through other sports at the end of this article, but I would rather focus on (arguably) the two biggest football codes in this country: Australian Rules and Rugby League.

The VFL/AFL has used the following systems in their history:

  • 2000-current: Current Top 8 finals system
  • 1994-99: McIntyre Top 8 finals system
  • 1992-93: Second McIntyre Top 6 finals system
  • 1991: First McIntyre Top 6 finals system
  • 1972-90: Top 5 system
  • 1931-71: Page-McIntyre Top 4 system
  • 1902-30: Semi-finals
  • 1897-1901: various methods

The NSWRL/ARL/Super League/NRL has used the following systems in their history:

  • 1995-96, 2012-present: Current Top 8 system
  • 1999-2011: McIntyre Top 8 finals system
  • 1998: Top 10 finals system
  • 1997 ARL: Top 7 finals system
  • 1973-94, 1997 Super League: Top 5 system
  • 1954-72: Page-McIntyre Top 4 system
  • 1908-53: various systems, usually contested by four teams but not always (no mandatory grand finals)

There are two trends that come from this. The first is that both codes used similar systems and the second is that rugby league seems to be adopting more teams in the finals after the AFL. Both codes (with the exception of rugby league in 1997 with the split competition and 1998) have had 8 team finals systems for the better part of the past two decades. As both have used both systems for a period of time, the current system adopted by both codes is the superior as I will describe below.

Current top 8 system

Week 1: (A) 1 v 4, (B) 2 v 3, (C) 5 v 8, (D) 6 v 7

Week 2: (E) Loser A v Winner C, (F) Loser B v Winner D

Week 3: (G) Winner A v Winner F, (H) Winner B v Winner E

Week 4 (Grand Final): Winner G v Winner H

For a top 8 finals system, this is the best system to use. Essentially, it’s a combination of two Page-McIntyre top 4 systems, crossed over in the third week of the finals series. This is to prevent sides playing each other twice in the space of three weeks. This is the best system because it provides a result for being better during the season as the top 4 sides are guaranteed a second chance if they lose in the first week of the finals. Unlike the other system, there is a tangible gain for the side that wins every game of the finals.

There are two drawbacks to using this system. The first is that if all goes to plan (the higher ranked sides win all of the games), in the third week of the finals it pits team 1 v team 3 and team 2 v team 4. This means that there is not much more of an advantage to finish 1st compared to finishing 2nd. The other is the big gap between teams 4 and 5. There might be some seasons, unlike the NRL and AFL in 2013, where the difference between teams 4 and 5 might be decided by point differential or percentage. It seems unfair that one side should get a second chance, while another may be eliminated in the first week, even though they won the same number of games during the season.

McIntyre top 8 system

I am not a big fan of this system. The ARL Commission weren’t either as the removal of this finals system was their first act when they took power in last 2011. This system is too complicated to explain here. Just search for it using your smartphones and try to understand how this system works. The McIntyre top 8 system does have its advantages. The first is that if all goes to plan, then in the third week of the finals series, it will be team 1 v team 4 and team 2 v team 3. The second advantage is that each team gets a progressive advantage for wherever they were situated on the ladder and that there is no big break between two sides that had a position determined by point differential or percentage.

However, this advantage is a disadvantage as the progressive advantage for sides that finish higher on the ladder is simply not enough to reward consistent form throughout a season. In the 2009 NRL finals series, the Dragons were the minor premiers, lost in the first week to a red hot Parramatta and then were ‘rewarded’ with a trip to Brisbane to play the Broncos with their season on the line. That’s no reward for being the best team all year. The second disadvantage of this system is that there are 2 games in the first week have no meaning as the winner of one game plays the loser of another game (and vice versa) in elimination games in week 2. In the 2011 NRL finals series, my Tigers were ‘rewarded’ after winning a tough game against the Dragons by having to face the angry 6th-placed Warriors who were flogged the week before. It simply wasn’t a reward for being a better side during the season as the side who finished 6th (and made the grand final) were given a second chance while the team that finished 4th did not.

Top 10

Week 1: (A) 3 v 6, (B) 4 v 5, (C) 7 v 10, (D) 8 v 9

Week 2: (E) 1 v Winner B, (F) 2 v Winner A, (G) Loser A v Winner C, (H) Loser B v Winner D

Week 3: (I) Loser E v Winner G, (J) Loser F v Winner H

Week 4: (K) Winner E v Winner J, (L) Winner F v Winner I

Week 5 (Grand Final): Winner K v Winner L

For some reason, the NRL decided to have 10 teams contest the finals series following the merger of the ARL and Super League in 1998. Despite the substantial number of sides that were in the finals series, the system that the NRL came up with was probably the best system that they could have come up. This system is essentially a combination of two top 5 finals systems, crossing over in week 3 of the series. Just like the current top 8 system, there is a reward for being a better team throughout a season, as teams 1 and 2 have a bye in the first week of the finals, teams 3 to 6 get a second chance in the first and second weeks of the finals series (not if they lose in both weeks however) and teams 7 to 10 face elimination for every game. Another advantage is that each finals game has a tangible reward for victory.

However, just like the current top 8 system, if all goes to plan then in the 4th week of the finals series (grand final qualifier), team 1 will play team 3 and team 2 will play team 4, which isn’t fair as previously discussed. Also, the difference in rewards between teams 2 and 3 and team 6 and 7 are quite substantial, which is a disadvantage as also previous discussed.

Author’s Note: A big follower of my articles (who shall remain nameless for privacy purposes) always seems to bring this finals series up whenever we are out enjoying a few choice beverages. I would also like to let them know that their constant appraisal of this system is the inspiration of this article.

Top 7

Week 1: (A) 2 v 3, (B) 4 v 5, (C) 6 v 7

Week 2: (D) 1 v Winner A, (E) Loser A v Loser B, (F) Winner B v Winner C

Week 3: (G) Winner D v Winner F, (H) Loser A v Winner E

Week 4 (Grand Final): Winner G v Winner H

The previous year the ARL used a weird-looking top 7 system as described above. This system does have its merits as if all goes to plan (the higher ranked teams win), then in Week 3, team 1 will play team 4 and team 2 will play team 3. Also, there is a reward for sides finishing higher in the ladder, as the first placed side gets a bye and will make it to the third week of the finals, the winner of the first game between teams 2 and 3 in Week 1 will also certainly make it through to Week 3. Teams 4 and 5 will make it through to Week 2, while teams 6 and 7 play sudden-death matches throughout.

The more I analyse this series, the more I like it. One drawback of the system is that the winner of game B (team 4 v team 5) will face the winner of game D in Week 3, which is a harder task than the loser of game B will have to face the loser of game D in Week 3. Sure, the loser of game B should have a more difficult game in Week 2 but the long-term reward just isn’t there.

First McIntyre Top 6 system

Week 1: (A) 1 v 2, (B) 3 v 4, (C) 5 v 6

Week 2: (D) Winner A v Winner B, (E) Loser A v Winner C

Week 3: (F) Loser D v Winner E

Week 4 (Grand Final): Winner D v Winner F

In 1991, the AFL added a sixth team to their finals system, in conjunction with the introduction of the Adelaide Crows to the competition. This system is very flawed, even though it does give teams 1 and 2 a second chance if they lose in Week 1. It is flawed as game B (3 v 4) has a huge weighting on it. The winner gets a second chance if they lose in Week 2 and the loser is eliminated. The second (and most important) flaw is that in Week 2, only one of teams 3 and 4 will be in the competition, while one of teams 5 and 6 will also be in the competition. This is simply unfair to teams 3 and 4 for being better performed sides. The AFL also realised this and moved to a different system for the following season.

Second McIntyre Top 6 system

Week 1: (A) 1 v 2, (B) 3 v 6, (C) 4 v 5

Week 2: (D) Winner A v Highest ranked winner of games B and C, (E) Loser A v Lowest ranked winner of games B and C

Week 3: (F) Loser D v Winner E

Week 4 (Grand Final): Winner D v Winner F

While this is better than the previous system, it still has its flaws, which is probably a reason why the AFL abandoned it after 2 seasons. Again, it rewards teams 1 and 2 by giving them a second chance and unlike the previous system, teams 3 and 4 can both still be in the finals series in Week 2. However, the big flaw in this system is that the highest ranked winner of the two elimination games in Week 1 will get a second chance if they lose in Week 2, while the loser of 1 v 2 in Week 1 will face sudden death for the remainder of the series. This isn’t enough of a reward for teams 1 and 2.

Top 5 system

Week 1: (A) 2 v 3, (B) 4 v 5

Week 2: (C) 1 v Winner A, (D) Loser A v Winner B

Week 3: (E) Loser C v Winner D

Week 4 (Grand Final): Winner C v Winner E

This is by far my favourite finals system and I think it is the most fair. Unfortunately, with TV companies demanding more finals matches, I can’t see the return of this finals system for either code. Each team gets a reward for finishing higher on the ladder, as team 1 has a Week 1 bye, teams 1 to 3 all have a second chance and teams 4 and 5 are playing sudden death for the whole series. Each game has a tangible reward for victory and a tangible consequence for defeat. I can’t see anything wrong with this series. The issue here is that when more teams are needed to be added, it brings in complexities as the finals series can’t go on forever. As a result, I doubt whether a perfect system for finals series with more than 5 teams can be found.

Page-McIntyre Top 4 system

Week 1: (A) 1 v 2, (B) 3 v 4

Week 2: (C) Loser A v Winner B

Week 3 (Grand Final): Winner A v Winner C

This is a simple, yet effective method. There is absolutely nothing wrong with it as teams 1 and 2 have a second chance, which provides a reward for finishing higher on the ladder. For this reason, it is superior to the straight semi-finals top 4 system.

Semi-finals top 4 system

Week 1: (A) 1 v 4, (B) 2 v 3

Week 2 (Grand Final): Winner A v Winner B

While team 1 has the advantage of facing the team coming 4th, they get no reward if they lose that game. I know from personal experience as the ACT Touch uses this system. In the 2012 Winter B-Grade Wednesday nights at Deakin Competition, the almighty Pilkingtonne Penguins were the best team in the comp all season as we were on top of the ladder from start to finish. However, the only side to challenge us all season was the team that finished 4th as they were deducted points for not completing ref duty. As a result, the real grand final was the semi-final, which we lost. There was no reward for us for being the dominant team all season.

Author’s note: In the 2012-13 Summer B-Grade Monday nights at Dickson competition, the mighty Penguins got their finals monkey off their back by winning the competition.

Other systems

Knock-out

In sports such as Tennis and the NFL, as well as in numerous World Cups (Soccer and Rugby), the knock out system is used. A good thing about knock outs is that teams/players either win or they are eliminated. In the case of tennis, it allows for a high number of people to enter a tournament while it only lasts for a short amount of time (two weeks for each major). It is simple to apply and builds up to a final.

First past the post

This is a traditional European Soccer system, as there would be two competitions running simultaneously, a league comp and a knockout tournament. The knockout tournament allows teams from various leagues (which are split up by division) to compete in the one competition. The combination of the two has its merits as the league competition rewards teams for being the best team for an entire season, while the knockout cup rewards teams for being able to play well in pressure games. This was the same system used in the early days of the NSWRL, however it was unsuccessful as supporters of teams were unsatisfied with seeing teams win the premiership without a deciding game. This led to the demise of the mid-week knockout competition as the main focus of teams was to win the league premiership.

Knock-out Series

This system is popular in the US, as it is used in the NBA, MLB and NHL. This system is good as it rewards consistency throughout the finals series. It is used for these sports as teams can play 4 or even 5 games a week, which ensures that the series doesn’t drag on. These three competitions have 80+ games (over 150 in the case of the MLB) in the regular season, so having one game decide the outcome of a team after they have played that many games is simply unfair. Also, a series can bring out a great deal of drama, none more so than the 2004 MLB ALCS between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees, where Boston came from 3-0 down to win the best of 7-game series and make it through to the World Series, where they would win their first title in almost a century.

Home and Away

No, I’m not promoting the TV show. This is a system where two games are played instead of one, with one at each teams’ home ground. It is also known as a 2-leg series and is popular in Soccer, with the Champions League being one example of a competition that uses this system. I like it as it rewards teams that can play well both at the comfort of their home ground and in an uncomfortable situation away from their home ground. However, I don’t think that this would work in Australia as we like to see one game decide the outcome of teams and not two. The A-league did use two leg semi-finals series until the 2011-12 season but replaced it with an NFL-like 6 team finals series for the 2012-13 season.

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