An open letter to David Gower about the unfairness of the Super League play-off system

DEAR David Gower,

Hope you are well, and enjoying the fact that England have risen to the top of the Test cricket rankings. It is good to know that we are still the best in the world at something other than humiliating female hotel workers and attending dwarf throwing contests.

Anyway, I’d like to pick you up on an article you wrote for The Sun in April. In it, you told its readers to reject proposals to change the way the British public elected their MPs. The First Past The Post set-up worked perfectly just fine, you suggested, and that bringing in the Alternative Vote system, well, just wouldn’t be cricket.

Politics should be like sport, you argued: Whoever gets the most votes wins. You claimed that, under AV, the candidate coming second or third during the initial ballot could end up the victor when the votes of eliminated candidates were transferred.

“In sport, as in elections, you have a winner and a loser,” Gower wrote. “It’s the way we separate the best from the worst. It is important that the winner is chosen simply and fairly.”

Those who supported AV argued that it was fairer, as you had to get an overall majority of votes to win. Piffle, you replied.

“As far as I can tell,” you continued, “it is being backed by those unfamiliar with winning, on the spurious basis that for the winner actually to take the prize is unreasonable.

“Using their logic, it could be the person who comes second or third who deserves the glory. Does that sound right to you? No, not to me either.”

Keep politics simple, like sport, you wrote. Winner takes all, you argued. And your argument won, as the people rejected AV by a huge margin.

Hmm, yes. Have you been watching any of the rugby this weekend, David?

If so, then you’d have seen Leeds Rhinos crowned Super League champions after a thrilling Grand Final victory over St Helens at Old Trafford. That’s right, David: Leeds are champions, despite the fact that they finished fifth in the league at the end of the regular season.

Have Leeds been the best team in Super League over the course of 2011? Have they heck. Warrington have been British rugby league’s outstanding club side by a mile. When the league fixtures were completed last month, the Wolves deservedly finished top, 11 points ahead of Leeds. Warrington won 22 league games out of 27. Leeds won just 15. Warrington were the only club to score more than 1,000 Super League points this year. Leeds managed a mere 757.

Whichever way you look at it, Warrington were far more deserving of the champions mantle than Leeds. But all Wolves got for finishing top was the Minor Premiership trophy, which no one cares about. It was the Rhinos who got the real thing.

They did it by winning through a Grand Final play-off system that is a million times more complicated than AV, David. Have you seen the diagram on Wikipedia explaining who plays who? It looks like a plate of spaghetti.
There are only 14 teams in Super League. And yet the top eight go into the play-offs for the title at the end of the season. You can finish eighth out of 14, and still be crowned champions. Does that sound like First Past The Post to you, David?

Leeds won the title, not over the course of a seven-month league season, but by hitting form over the three weeks when it really mattered. They had to win four games to do it, beating Warrington away from home in a nerve-shredding semi-final in the process, so you can argue that they deserved it. You can argue that they were the better team in last night’s Grand Final against St Helens too. And you’d be right, David, you’d be right. But you’d be missing the point.

And the point is that no team should be crowned champions of a league in which they finished fifth. It’s absurd.

Yes, Kevin Sinfield showed extraordinary nerve to slot over that winning penalty in the last few minutes as Warrington were beaten 26-24 in that semi-final a week ago. Yes, he could probably teach Jonny Wilkinson a thing or two about kicking these days. And yes, Leeds showed great character in coming back from behind to beat Saints last night. But they finished fifth!

Maybe the First Past The Post system is more like sport, David. In both, sometimes winner takes all when perhaps they don’t deserve it. A FPTP winner typically triumphs with a minority of the overall vote. A sports team can be champions even if they weren’t the best over the course of a season. C’est la vie.

Anyway, David, I hope you’re enjoying the Rugby World Cup. By the way, have you noticed that three of the four semi-finalists finished second in their pool?

Kind regards,

Nick Clegg

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