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Northampton should go straight into Premiership final – current play-off system grossly unfair

Alex Waller shrugs his shoulders
Northampton Saints must navigate the play-offs, despite finishing top of the league - Getty Images/David Rogers

With the whistle blown and the Champions Cup trophy lifted, a shattered Antoine Dupont shuffled over to his ecstatic mother as the world’s best player. The captain of the best club team in Europe and South Africa, and officially the best player in the final, Dupont summoned as much energy as he could to embrace his family; all in the knowledge that, in the realms of club rugby, Toulouse’s magician had achieved No 1 status.

It is the tag for which anyone in any competitive field yearns: being No 1. It is all relative, of course – Dupont failed to scale those heights on an international scale last autumn – but whether it be this weekend’s local sevens tournament or the Six Nations earlier in the year, no one likes losing and, more often than not, those who do not lose finish first. To mis-quote Dr Seuss, you have to be special to be No 1.

Dupont is special and, to correctly quote Seuss, unique. As are this season’s Northampton Saints; a special set of players at a special club who this season scaled special heights: finishing as No 1 in the Premiership table, having led the way for months playing the most dazzling and dashing brand of rugby in the league. Their reward? The name of Jeremy Clarkson’s farm (Diddly Squat for those who do not watch his documentary).

History dictates that the prize earned for a top-two Premiership finish does furnish the home side with a significant advantage – as my colleague Ben Coles wrote this week, no team has ever won the Premiership from third place and those sides have only ever reached the final twice – but in offering Bath the same leg-up as Northampton this weekend, English rugby’s top flight has forgotten the number-one rule: finishing first is an achievement in itself, no matter what kind of convoluted system administrators dream up to crown the true victor.

To the victor the spoils?

Finishing first has often been a poisoned chalice – only five sides have lifted the trophy after doing so – and Northampton’s “anti-reward” is a semi-final showdown with Saracens on Friday night. Say what you like about Saracens’ inconsistencies this season – as Owen Farrell did on Tuesday – but no one would have wanted to face this gang of knock-out guerrillas in the semi-finals. The two sides have met three times at this stage and Saints have won just once – and it was not at Franklin’s Gardens, where this Friday’s play-off will take place. Last season, Saracens triumphed easily.

If the Premiership must have a play-off system, so be it, but it is grossly unfair that there is no greater prize for finishing at the top of the pile. Nearly every director of rugby or head coach, in the topsy-turviest of seasons, has been captured on the record trotting out the same old platitude of the Premiership being a marathon not a sprint. They were almost correct; it is a marathon where whoever registers the quickest speed in the sprint finish is crowned champion.

“In rugby league they have a trophy for league leaders but it’s not relevant in what we’re doing,” Phil Dowson, the Saints director of rugby, said this week. “They’re not going to remember who finished top of the table, they’re going to remember who picked up the trophy.”

Saints deserve a prize befitting achievement

Dowson, as magnanimous and astute as ever, is right. We will not remember that the Saints finished top of the 2023-24 table – but we should. Finishing first should mean something – as it does in almost all sports or fields – and something more than a gimmicky trophy to the league winners before the true victors have their day in the sun at Twickenham; the Premiership must tweak their end-of-season template to one which rewards the marathon winner and one which suits a 10-team league.

The top four “Shaughnessy play-off” was a concept introduced in 2003 when the Premiership was a 12-team division, when there was a cachet in finishing in the top third of the league table. From 2000 to 2003, however, the Premiership employed a different system – to which I urge the Premiership to revert. The team finishing first progressed directly to Twickenham and, no matter what, had their deserved crack at glory. If the league winners lost that match against the victor of a play-off between the teams finishing second and third, they still had their 15 minutes. And they would at least officially be runners-up.

The drama – and financial incentives – of the play-offs is not up for debate but it would verge on scandal should Northampton not even have an opportunity to lift the trophy having lost a one-off match to a team full of knock-out rugby expertise. Even if the Premiership does not wish to bestow trophy status on the team finishing first, the Saints deserve a prize befitting the achievement. Just like Dupont, they are unique, special and No 1.

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