Almanac Rugby League – A numbers game

Coming into this weekend I found myself once again scratching my head, just like most rugby league fans as to how this McIntyre Finals system operates.

Apparently it’s all about rankings, and provided you keep winning, elimination isn’t a problem. On the surface, it sounds simple enough.
But delving a little deeper, I realised that each year we require thorough explanations about the vast assortment of scenarios, just to determine which way the finals compass might point. There really ought to be someone without a doctorate in mathematics that actually understands it.

This year, however, settling into my local for some classic Sunday afternoon finals footy, I am confident I am pretty close to figuring it out, only because all the games have gone to script. For the first time since the introduction of the McIntyre System, each of the higher ranked sides have been victorious thus far, meaning a Melbourne victory at AAMI Park today will see the two best sides of the competition earn a week off, whilst the seventh and eighth ranked sides will fade into the off-season.

I get it. I realise it also means that the remaining four sides now have essentially played a futile round-robin match this weekend, and any victories thus far won’t really matter as they swap partners next week like a barn dance for a sudden-death encounter. It makes about as much sense as a Rubik’s cube, but it’s what we have.

Across the bar someone makes a valid point. What will happen if the Knights somehow upset the minor premiers today? Good God. I hadn’t even considered that. I don’t have the time to work that through, Kurt Gidley’s about to kick off. Part of my anatomy twitches involuntarily at the thought, and suddenly by default that I’m supporting Melbourne.

Neither side is in emphatic form and the start is measured, as if just dipping a foot into the water to test its depth. Early on, the Storm like the high ball, with a swirling wind above AAMI Park and the Knights favour the left hand side but it’s really Neville Costigan, who makes the early impact.

First a forward pass, just as the Knights look promising, then a costly dropped ball, allows Matt Duffie to scoop it up, and score up the other end.
When ten minutes later there’s a beautiful set move, creating an overlap, which results in a Beau Champion try in the corner, even bringing a rare smile to the face of Craig Bellamy, somehow it’s 10-0 and Melbourne have full control of this game, though they’ve been anything but dazzling.

There’s a grinding feel, and a level of focus unseen since last year’s Dragons campaign (and we know how that finished). They’re clinical, disciplined, and almost robotic. It’s scary.

It’s not until Cooper Cronk pushes right and executes a cross-field banana hook, a pin-point bomb for a third Storm try, that we see the first real piece of brilliance this afternoon, in the shadows of halftime.

In the second half the Knights have it all to do. Mullen seems to have no creativity in his kicking game, picking out Slater with tedious monotony. Melbourne meanwhile, are completing 90% of their sets, and enjoying almost 60% possession. Make no mistake, rugby league is a numbers game, and the cold hard statistics don’t lie.

By the time the hosts are out to three converted tries, only twenty minutes remain. Melbourne are already considering their preliminary final in a fortnight. In fact, based on today’s nothing-left-to-chance performance, I suspect someone at the Storm might have even worked out under this McIntyre System who they will play.

However it’s just as Melbourne begin to dream, that the inevitable comeback happens. First Ryan Stig runs and hands off to Gidley who pushes through and finally scores for Newcastle in the corner. Then Akuila Uate bustles through four minutes later, and suddenly it’s 18-8. Plenty of time still remains. The boys across the bar scramble to work through the numbers if Newcastle keep coming and complete the impossible. They have a calculator out. I begin twitching again…

But it’s all for nothing, because of course, football is no fairytale, there is no grandstand finish and 18-8 is the way we conclude. The numbers tell the story. Too much dropped ball from Newcastle has them ruing their limited opportunities. Then even when the game freed up in the back half of the match and the Knights finally got some chances, the mountain was too large to climb.

The numbers (and the boys in the bar) tell me that Melbourne have earned the week off, and the Knights have begun Mad Monday. The numbers also tell me that next week’s matches have been finalised. But how they determine who Manly and Melbourne will play the week after is beyond me.

I don’t have that PhD. All I need to know is that eight have become six, and next week six will become four, before four becomes two. As to who will play who – I’ll leave that to the mathematicians of this crazy McIntyre Finals System. After all, it’s a numbers game.

MELBOURNE STORM 18 (Tries: M Duffie, B Champion, S Manu. Goals: C Smith 3/4)
NEWCASTLE KNIGHTS 8 (Tries: K Gidley, A Uate. Goals: K Gidley 0/2)

Venue: AAMI Park
Crowd: 14,845
Votes: 3-Manu (MEL), 2-Smith (MEL), 1-Slater (MEL)
Milestones: First time since the implementation of the McIntyre System in 1999 that the four top ranked sides have been victorious in the first week of the finals.

Doug Roweth

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