Designing a League: Getting the Right Format

Designing a League: Getting the Right Format

If you are a regular reader, you may have noticed that I watch a lot of sport (probably more than is healthy) and in some cases – most notably rugby – follow a number of different domestic leagues within a sport. As a result of this, I have come to see that most sports leagues will follow one of 2 formats:

The first is what I would call a League Format, where every team will play home and away against every other team in the league, as seen in the Premier League, Top 14 and the Gallagher Premiership.

The second is what I would call a Conference Format, where the league is split into a number of conferences and teams play a schedule that does not feature matches against every opposition, these league will then have a playoff at the end to determine the champion. Leagues that follow this format would include the Pro14, Super Rugby and the NFL, which takes things even further by splitting its 2 16-team conferences into 4-team divisions.

Now, imagine you were able to create and organise a professional league of your own, what format would you pick?

League Format

The big draw of the league format is that it has a balanced schedule. Each team plays everybody else both home and away so – beyond the changes in form through a season – every team is on an even playing field by playing the same fixtures.

While this is great in principle, it does have its drawbacks. It is harder to have a large number of teams in a league of this format as for each team that is added, that is a further 2 matches that must be added to the schedule. Just look at the Premier League, which contains 20 teams and runs from August to May (there will be some international breaks, but there will also be some midweek games to make up for this).

Tying into the long season is the lack of a rest for players as this means that there is very little time between the end of one season and the beginning of the next preseason – something made even worse in rugby by the international Test matches being straight after the European seasons finish. This means that players get very little time to rest and recuperate away from the sport itself, and may lead to more frequent injuries if they are not recovering fully.

This format is also beneficial in a tiered league structure that includes promotion and relegation, as it is very clear from the standings which teams should go up or down as the balanced schedule makes it clear which teams have been strongest and weakest throughout the season.

This format also allows the league organisers to decide if they want any playoffs to determine the overall winner (as in the Gallagher Premiership) or name the team that tops the table as the winner (as in the Premier League).

Conference Format

The big benefit of this format is that as teams don’t have to play home and away against everybody else in the league, which allows for a much larger number of teams but also a shorter season (the NFL has 32 teams play up to a maximum of 20 matches over 22 weeks, 16 matches in 17 weeks if they don’t make the playoffs). This means that there is much more time for players to recover and recuperate between the end of the season and the beginning of the next preseason.

However, this shorter schedule may not be ideal as it will not be balanced. Teams may play home and away against some teams, but there will also be a number of teams that they will not play every season, leading to an unbalanced schedule where one team may play a higher proportion of weaker teams that some of the opponents they are directly competing against in the standings. Just take a moment to look at the Pro14 this season, where Conference B contains Leinster (10 wins, 1 loss at time of writing) but Conference A’s strongest team is Glasgow (8 wins, 3 losses). However, Conference A has 4 teams with more points than Conference B’s 3rd-placed team (Scarlets) and their spread of points (41-16 – 25 points) is less than in Conference B (49-12 – 37 points). Considering every team will have the same number of matches in the regular season, a stronger schedule will immediately put some teams at a disadvantage, so this type of format is not necessarily as fair.

Along with the strength of schedule, the teams that qualify for the playoffs will usually also be decided within each conference, so if we keep with the Pro14 example, Connacht are currently set to miss out on the playoffs as they are 4th in their Conference, despite having 2 points more than Scarlets, who would qualify for the playoffs as 3rd place in their Conference.

For the same reasons, promotion and relegation would be harder in this format as it would be harsh to relegate a team that had a point less if they have had a much harder schedule than the next team, so a playoff would likely be required for this. This also requires playoffs to establish a winner, unless teams were at the end of the season grouped into a combined table, but again this gives a benefit to a team with a weaker schedule.

My preference

For me, the balanced schedule is a huge draw and it makes the playing field fair, therefore if I was developing a new league, I would want to run a League Format however to avoid overly long seasons and too many games I would limit the league to probably no more than 10 teams and just increase the number of tiers in the sporting structure, with one or 2 teams being promoted and relegated each year, depending on the size of the league and the quality of the leagues below. I would personally not see the need to include a playoff at the end of the season, however if it was required – I can see the benefits both to the money coming in and the guarantee of when the title will be confirmed – then I would have no more than 4 teams competing in the playoffs, most likely just 3 in a smaller tournament.

So that would be my preference, but what tournament format do you prefer?

Forced into a bad move

Back in April we got the announcement that Super Rugby was being cut from 18 to 15 teams, with 2 South African franchises and 1 Australian franchise being cut from the competition. The worst kept secret in rugby was officially announced recently that the Kings and Cheetahs would be leaving Super Rugby to join the Pro12 (now Pro14). Now the news has dropped that the Western Force will be the 3rd casualty of the Super Rugby Cuts.

Those who read my article at the time the planned cuts were announced will know that I am not happy with the way SANZAAR have been running Super Rugby in recent years, first with the format after expanding the league and then the way they quickly jumped ship and forced SARU and the ARU to cut teams. I have not been overly happy with the decision to add South African teams to the Pro14 but I am willing to give it the chance. However I am very unhappy with the cutting of the Force.

It has already been said that the decision to cut the Force was primarily due to financial reasons. That is understandable as this is a business, however I wonder if this could have a negative impact on Australian rugby. The axing of the Western Force means that all 4 of Australia’s franchises are to be found in the East or South East of the country. With no top-level rugby union franchise in West Australia, there is a distinct possibility that fans will leave the sport, depriving the national team of support and young players who could have grown into future superstars.

The geographical argument may have held more sway if the Force had been poor this season, however they finished 12th overall in 2017 with 26 points, ahead of fellow Australian franchises the Reds, Waratahs and Rebels (21, 19 and 9 points respectively. Australian Rugby is not in a great place at the moment but the Force were one of the only franchises that the ARU could conceivably be proud of. They have also contributed 6 players to the Wallabies squad for the Rugby Championship, the same number as the conference-topping Brumbies and 1 more than the Melbourne Rebels.

It’s never nice to see a team cut and players lose their job, but I feel that the entire situation has been handled appallingly. The expansion of the competition was handled poorly leading to a controversial cutting of teams by SANZAAR. It was always going to be tough for the ARU to look good coming out of this, but the way they have handled the situation since it was announced they have had to cut a team has been shocking.

It would appear that every step of the way money has been the motivator. At the end of the day, it’s rugby that will be losing out.

International Rugby Ramble

Farewell to a legend

This weekend saw the USA national rugby team make history by qualifying for the 2019 Rugby World Cup as the top American qualifier for the first time ever. Their win over the Canadians in San Diego – on Canada Day, no less! – was by no means perfect, as they frequently struggled at the scrum, but they frequently impressed in open play and scored some beautiful tries on their way to a 52-16 victory. This result has confirmed the USA’s place in Pool C alongside England, France, Argentina and the currently unconfirmed Oceania 2 qualifier.

While there was a lot to celebrate at full time, the moment was also bittersweet, as it signalled the international retirement of the USA’s most-capped player. Rugby’s very own Captain America, flanker Todd Clever made his international debut in 2003 and has gone on to amass 76 caps, as well as appearing for the USA in the World Sevens Series on a number of occasions. For a number of years, he was the face of USA rugby, and even with the emergence of a number of talented Americans, he has remained a key part of the national team. I can’t help but wonder if the USA would have been more successful in the 2015 World Cup had he not been left out following a disagreement with then-Head Coach Mike Tolkin.

Clever was the first American to play in Super Rugby (for the Lions in 2009) and has even competed against the British and Irish Lions on their tour that year. He spent 5 years playing in the Japanese Top League and also played in the Aviva Premiership for Newcastle in the 2015/16 season.

Now back in America, he is a player and co-owner for the Austin Huns, who will be part of the inaugural Major League Rugby. Though PRO Rugby did not work out, I have heard a lot of promising things regarding the MLR and I look forward to seeing how things go once the league begins. I still feel that the USA have the potential to be the next rugby superpower and seriously hope that players continue to come through to take Clever’s place.

 

Clever is not the first captain to announce his international retirement this summer, as he is joined by Geogia’s Mamuka Gorgodze, who has similarly helped to put Georgian rugby on the map. I am sure that both of these players have been inspirations not just for their teammates, but for the children who will now want to grow up to represent their country on the rugby pitch. Though the big names may be stepping down, I fully hope and expect both national teams to push on and continue to improve without them.

 

A hairy situation

Over the weekend I read an article on Pundit Arena stating the Japanese Rugby Union raised the hairstyle of hooker Shota Horie as a topic of discussion and expressed their disapproval at a recent board meeting.

The hooker has won over 50 caps for the national team and plays for the Sunwolves, so should be considered an inspiration for those looking to get into rugby in Japan. From what I have read, the union seem to be citing the idea of integrity, yet does a players hairstyle really constitute such a problem? It’s not like he’s got a cock and balls shaved into the side!

Maybe its something to do with me being follicly challenged, but I would never imagine playing rugby with the hairstlyes that some of these pros do. That said, I do not see any problem with players having their hair as such and if I’m completely honest I couldn’t imagine players like Todd Clever or Richard Hibbard playing with close-cropped hair.

Even if they are going to be strict on a player’s personal appearance, are there not more important things for the JRFU to be worrying about right now? The World Cup they are hosting is just over 2 years away and the Sunwolves have only managed 2 wins and a draw in their first 28 Super Rugby games and are on track to finish bottom of the combined table for the second year running. I think the JRFU need to get their priorities right, quickly!

 

Lions tour disciplinary results

When I wrote about Saturday’s second Test between the Lions and All Blacks, I mentioned that I would not be surprised to see Sonny Bill Williams receive a ban for his high tackle on Anthony Watson. I was proved right as it was announced yesterday that the cross-code star had received a 4-week ban.

It would appear that the commission felt the same as me, that the incident was more reckless than intentional. I was however a little surprised at the length of the ban. The incident was considered a mid-range offence, which has a starting point of 6 weeks, however the ban was reduced to 4 weeks after considering mitigating factors including his early admission, disciplinary record, good character and remorse. The mention of his good disciplinary record surprised me as there have been other occasions in the past where he has been penalised for not wrapping in the tackle, so considering how strict World rugby are being with contact to the head I would have expected the entry-level 6 weeks to stand, possibly with an extra week added as a deterrent.

 

Williams wasn’t the only player attending a hearing over the weekend though, as Sean O’Brien was cited for a forearm on Waisake Naholo. I was surprised when the citing was announced as to me the incident looked accidental rather than reckless. Had it been picked up during the game I feel there would have been some justification for a yellow – harsh perhaps, but there was enough force for Naholo to fail a HIA – but I did not feel that there was enough to warrant a red card. The case was dismissed, which shows the commission felt that no action was required, as they could have issued a Citing Commissioner Warning if they felt the challenge was worthy of a yellow. This will be a huge boost for the Lions as they prepare for the series-defining third Test this Saturday.

 

What are your thoughts on these stories? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

Eyes On: Blues v British and Irish Lions

The Lions continued their tour of New Zealand with their first midweek game against Tana Umaga’s Blues. This was their first match against Super Rugby opposition as they continue to build towards the first Test against the All Blacks in on the 24th.

After a poor showing in their opening game against the Provincial Barbarians, Warren Gatland picked a completely new starting XV, with a number of players who started the opener joining Peter O’Mahony and Liam Williams on the bench. Though they played much better than on Saturday, a late converted try from Ihaia West put the Blues 22-16 ahead and an errant throw from replacement hooker Rory Best at a line-out 7 metres from the Blues try-line denied the Lions a chance of claiming victory with the last play of the game.

As we begin to look towards Saturday’s game against the Crusaders, here are my thoughts on Game 2 of the Tour.

 

A better performance… but improvements needed

Though the result did not go the way Lions fans will have wanted, this was a much better performance than against the Barbarians. Dan Biggar looked settled until his injury and Johnny Sexton, who came on as his replacement around the 35 minute mark, had a better performance than at the weekend. The back line as a whole appeared much more involved than in the first game, and Rhys Webb provided some zip to the attack. In the pack, the scrum was a formidable weapon and Ken Owen’s decision to kick a 15th minute penalty to the corner – and the subsequent try from CJ Stander – showed that the Lions have real faith in the strength of their pack compared to their opponents. This is certainly an area where the All Blacks will be watching nervously.

However the performance was far from perfect. The attacking from the backs looked very limited, with much of the play just going from side to side without any real penetration. The defence however was cut open far too easily, and appeared to struggle with the host’s offloads. Rhys Webb may have played well on the whole but his box kicks were frequently too long to compete for and merely handed possession back to the Blues. To make matters worse, their discipline was atrocious. Against the Barbarians, the referee had to repeatedly warn the forwards to keep the gap at line-outs, but today I counted 2 free kicks conceded for this offence, along with at least 2 penalties for other – completely avoidable – offences at the line-out (Lawes grabbing the man in the air, Biggar encroaching). Liam Williams gave away a good position on the pitch with a stupid tackle of a player in the air and clearly didn’t learn from this by doing the same thing again mere minutes later, earning him 10 minutes in the sin bin at a crucial point in the game. To beat the other franchises – not to mention the All Blacks – the Lions will need to improve their discipline drastically, or teams will happily kick for territory and points all day long.

Defensive organisation

Jack Nowell was frequently picked out by the Sky Sports commentators as having a bad day and struggling to deal with Rieko Ioane, but while I agree that he can defend better than he did in this game I feel that he was not helped by the way that the Lions set up to defend so narrow. The Blues were happy to spread the ball from the start and even in the early minutes, I was noticing occasions where there were multiple attackers lined up outside Nowell and Elliot Daly, the Lions wingers. This happened a couple of times even before Ioane got outside Nowell to cross for the opening try. I understand that with players like Sonny Bill Williams in the midfield it is important to stop the opposition from breaking through the middle, but to make it easy for a team to get outside with a simple cross-kick or a few wide passes is madness! I have noticed in the Super Rugby highlights this year how accurate All Blacks fly half Beauden Barrett is with his cross-kicks. If the Lions wish to continue with this defensive tactic, I would not be surprised to see him take full advantage of this in the Tests.

From blue to black

In the same way that the Barbarians side contained a number of players looking to earn a Super Rugby contract, the Blues had a number of players hoping their performance will get them a place in the Test squad. Sonny Bill Williams’ performance gave credence to the phrase ‘form is temporary, class is permanent’. He is still getting back to his best after his injury during the Rio Olympics but put in a vintage performance against the Lions. Right from the early minutes, Williams was putting himself about defensively, ripping the ball out of the hands of no less than CJ Stander and also winning a turnover deep in his 22 to end the Lions’ early dominance. His try on the stroke of half time was opportunistic, but would not have been possible if he had not reacted quicker than everyone around him. For the winning try, his attacking line on the shoulder of Steven Luatua cut the Lions defence apart and his offload to Ihaia West was him at his best. Even more impressive is that, as a devout Muslim, he is currently fasting during the day for Ramadan! It’s no surprise to have seen him named this morning in the All Blacks squad for the Tests and I would be surprised if he does not at least make the bench.

Selection headache

Dan Biggar left the pitch just before half time for a HIA and never returned to the pitch. He has been left out of the match day 23 for this weekend’s game against the Crusaders as he goes through return to play protocols. However, as we have seen with Dane Coles, there is no guarantee of a quick return to training, so with 2 games per week he could miss a considerable number of matches. If this means that Owen Farrell and Sexton are to both feature in each match over the next few weeks, there is a very good chance that they will be burned out by the time the Tests come around. With Scotland playing in Singapore on Saturday, I would not be surprised to see Finn Russell called up to the Lions squad as extra cover in the next few days.

More of the haka

Away from the rugby, I was happy to see on Tuesday that the Blues would be performing a haka before the game, as would each of the other Super Rugby franchises. As the world continues to modernise, I love to see that the Maori culture is still getting time in the public eye. As the announcement was so close to the game and this was the first time the Blues had performed a haka, I was expecting to see a performance of Ka Mate, so I was very happy to see the Blues perform He Toa Takitini (The Strength of Many). If all of the Super Rugby franchises are going to perform different hakas, then I think this will be great for the general public to see and will hopefully get more people interested in looking into the Maori culture.

 

What were your thoughts on the game? Do you think I missed anything? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

Not-so-super Rugby?

Over the weekend it was announced that from next season Super Rugby will be reducing in size from 18 teams to 15, with 1 Australian and 2 South African franchises set to be cut. This is clearly a less-than-ideal situation and there will be a number of players and fans upset (not to mention angry) with the decision while they wait to see if their franchise is one of the unlucky 3.

Back in 2016, when the tournament was expanded to include a 6th South African team and franchises in Japan and Argentina, SANZAAR made the mistake of making the tournament format overly confusing, spreading the teams over 4 conferences within 2 groups, rather than simply adding an extra team into each of the existing 3 conferences. I am, to put it lightly, a rugby nut, so if I found the format difficult to understand then I hate to imagine how it was for more casual fans!

While the job of picking the franchises to be cut falls to the affected unions, it will be interesting to see how the teams are picked. The Western Force are widely tipped to be the ARU’s sacrificial lamb, but if that is the case, all 4 remaining franchises will be located in eastern Australia, alienating a large number of Australian Rugby fans. What will annoy Force fans even more if this goes through is the knowledge that they have been more successful (4 wins from 21 games) than the Sunwolves (2 wins & 1 draw from 21 games) since the expansion, yet the Sunwolves are guaranteed their place in the competition due to SANZAAR’s “strategic plan for the future”. This plan for the future supposedly relates to the potential of the sport to grow in Asia off the back of the 2019 Rugby World Cup, but you have to wonder how much the decision also relates to money. We still appear no closer to getting a Pacific Island franchise even though they would arguably be more ready for the quality of opposition than the Sunwolves have been so far. It seems that the potential for rich new markets matters more to the people at the top than retaining the traditional rugby heartlands and you wonder if some of the national teams will begin to struggle down the line as a result.

It could be argued that some of the national teams are struggling already. The Pacific Islands continue to lose potential internationals to other countries and now only Fiji can be found in the top 10. Tonga and Samoa (13th and 14th respectively) are now both below not just Japan (11th) but also Georgia (12th). Even more noticeable to the casual fan has been South Africa’s drop to 7th in the world rankings after only 4 wins in 2016. Between the Springbok’s poor form and arguments over racial quotas, the last thing SARU needed was one-third of their Super Rugby franchises being cut! Cutting these 3 teams will also not help the ARU and SARU stop the migration of talented players to richer European leagues, so unless they tighten the election policy for the national teams they could see more prospective internationals choosing to play outside the control of their national union.

At first glance, the only ones who benefit from these changes next season are those whose unions are not being required to cut teams. The Japanese and Argentinian national teams will be able to continue to grow alongside their respective franchises and the NZRU will be able to continue to churn out the next batch of superstars through their 5 franchises, whilst continuing their recent dominance in the competition (7 of the last 12 finalists, 4 of them tournament champions). The New Zealand franchises may have generally performed better than the other countries’ franchises in recent years – the Blues are currently the only one not in the top half of this season’s combined table – but it does feel harsh that they will have more franchises than South Africa, who have over double the number of clubs and 4 times the number of registered players.

There was no way that everyone was going to be happy once it was clear teams needed to be cut from Super Rugby, but I can’t help but wonder if the format of the tournament these last 2 years was part of the issue. Hopefully if SANZAAR look to expand the tournament again in the future they will look at keeping a simpler format. Or perhaps 15 is the perfect number of teams in the competition. If they do decide to stick to 15, I will be very interested to see how SANZAAR deal with future expansions, either to have more Argentinian/Japanese franchises, or to include franchises from other nations such as the Pacific Islands or the USA.

Maybe SANZAAR need to look at the creation of a second tier within the tournament, with the champions of the lower tier being promoted at the end of the season in order to replace the team in the top tier that came bottom of the table. This may make the geographical conference structure more difficult, but it would allow each of the original 3 unions to field 5-6 franchises over the 2 tiers, whilst also allowing franchises from other nations to compete on a level playing field. If they could get 20-24 franchises over the two tiers, they would be able to go for 10-12 per tier, cutting down on the travel costs.

 

These are just my personal views on the matter, so I would be very interested to hear your opinions. What do you think of the current 18-team format and the plans for next year? Where do you think Super Rugby should go after this? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge