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Can the AFL and NRL competitions be made fairer?

By Chris Lewis - posted Tuesday, 5 October 2010


With the National Rugby League (NRL) and Australian Football League (AFL) just completing their seasons with their respective grand finals, just how fair are both competitions?

Much of the discussion about fairness focuses on the different final eight systems used by the AFL and NRL. This is despite both leagues eliminating two teams each week until two remain to fight out the grand final on the fourth week, after the top two ranked winning teams from the first round of finals advance straight to the third week (preliminary finals).

The AFL has a fairer top eight if one believes that the top four teams from the regular season should be guaranteed a double chance. While both systems eliminate the two lowest ranking teams of the four losing teams during the first week of finals, the NRL system does not guarantee the survival of the 3rd and 4th ranked teams. This is because the NRL, under the McIntyre Final Eight System since 1999, sees 1st play 8th, 2nd play 7th, 3rd play 6th, and 4th play 5th. In contrast, the AFL protects the top four teams given that 1st plays 4th, 2nd plays 3rd, 5th plays 8th, and 6th plays 7th.

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Under the McIntyre system, when one includes the disqualified Melbourne Storm for salary cap breaches, the top two NRL teams have won six of 12 grand finals since 1999 (including St George 2010), and were runner up eight times. NRL teams that finished outside the top four in the regular season won no premierships but finished runner-up on four occasions (including Sydney Roosters 2010).

When the AFL used the McIntyre system from 1994-1999 with its final eight, the top two teams won four of six flags and were runner-up on four occasions. Of the teams that finished outside the top four during the regular season, one won the premiership and two came runner-up.

In contrast, with the AFL using the different play-off system since 2000, the top two teams have won 9 of 11 flags (including Collingwood 2010) and finished runner up seven times. Since 2000, no AFL teams finishing outside the top four in the regular season has made the grand final.

But the main factor limiting fairness in the AFL and NRL is not the final eight system. Rather, it is the reality that all teams do not play each other twice given the ongoing expansion of teams and the physicality of the two sports. In contrast, major soccer national leagues, even with many more teams, play each other twice. For instance, England’s Premier League with 20 teams play 38 matches. At present, the AFL’s 16 team competition plays 22 matches (17 teams in 2011), and the NRL’s 16 teams play 24 matches each.

In a previous era, notably 1970-1986, the VFL/AFL draw was completely fair as the 12 clubs played each team twice (22 matches).

So what can be done about the AFL and NRL to make the competitions fairer in terms of deciding who plays who, given that it cannot be expected that leagues of 16-18 teams (by 2012) could not play 30-34 rounds because of the extreme physicality of such sports?

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At present, both the AFL and NRL have no clear rules, openly supporting profit over fairness. The AFL especially ensures that the big teams play each other twice, as evident by Collingwood playing Essendon (including Anzac Day).

The NRL is similar with its chief operating officer Graham Annesley indicating in 2009 that “we have worked with the clubs to ensure that the draw takes into account the contests that fans most want to see”.

The National Football League (USA) provides an example of a greater fairness with its 32 teams playing 16 regular season matches. With two conferences (American and National) each having four divisions of four teams, each team plays the other three teams in their division twice (home and away); plays four teams from another division within its own conference once on a rotating three-year cycle; plays four teams from a division in the other conference once on a rotating four-year cycle; and plays once against the other teams in its conference that finished in the same place in their own divisions as themselves the previous season, not counting the division each is already scheduled to play.

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About the Author

Chris Lewis has an interest in all economic, social and environmental issues, but believes that the struggle for the ‘right’ policy mix remains an elusive goal in such a complex and competitive world.

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