You're barely considered a proper sport these days unless you augment your league competition with some sort of knockout finale. The Americans seem to have been first with the Superbowl and the baseball world series amongst others, but over here we have largely failed to grasp what really makes those work. In American Football, for example, they divide the country into two "conferences" whose teams play each other only sporadically, and the best half dozen squads from each of those plays off for the right to meet the other conference champion in a head-to-head overall decider. The only kudos to be gained at the league stage is some pride in victory over traditional rivals in your four-team "division".
In the UK, we would bandy the phrase "good cup team" about to damn knockout champions with faint praise, but we loved the drama, and TV executives loved the ratings, that such a climax brings to a sport. Deeply entrenched in the dogma that team success was measured over a marathon and definitely not a sprint we struggled to find ways to graft do-or-die tension onto steady accumulation. Football stopped short of gridiron in sparing actual champions and their gallant runners up from any unnecessary post-season shenanigans, while condemning those who might otherwise be clutching bronze achievement medals to face-off once again with opposition that they had often left way behind over the regular run of home and away fixtures. Cricket exploded with knockout formats, culminating in the How Long Have You Got? Trophy, where teams are matched over the web with suitable opposition according to how many overs they can be bothered to play on any given weekend, and the controversial Lightning Cricket where all five bowlers deliver a ball one after the other in a constant sequence from the same end to a batsman only allowed to score in fours or sixes and who, when out, must charge headlong for the pavilion while the new bat has to make it to the wicket in time to avoid the ignominy of being bowled out without taking strike.
Rugby decided to plump largely for the American Football post-season model, but without diluting the original league format, such that a team that had trounced allcomers over the harsh winter months could, on its last legs as the summer heat begins to kick in, have the ultimate accolade snatched from under its nose by some outfit who had coasted into fourth without over-exerting itself too much, saving its energy for when it really mattered. When the new playoff winners were declared to be overall champions for 2003 it had the feel of runners at the end of a 10,000m race being told they still had another couple of laps to do.
Indeed, this year's Guinness Premiership finalists have both suffered greatly under the new format. Gloucester won the league in the inaugural post-season championship year, but they were trounced by London Wasps in the final, a team who became the oval ball equivalent of Kenyan distance athletes bursting past exhausted front-runners as they went on to defeat league champions Bath and Leicester in the two finals after that. Last year Leicester were handily beaten by league champions Sale. This time Gloucester find themselves once again in the role of league victors with a lot to lose while Leicester seek to avoid a third heavy final defeat. Leicester might even be grateful that their deduction of a point for fielding an ineligible player meant they finished behind Gloucester given the propensity for the league champions to throw it away on the day. Add in two very tight meetings already this season and we think it'll be the team that holds its nerve best in a low-scoring affair that takes the honours.
Attendances at this modern spectacle have doubled over the years, but it still only attracts around 60,000 to a stadium capable of holding a third as many again, and so tickets will be available at Twickenham on Saturday from the West Car Park ticket office priced between £10 and £40. Kickoff is at 2:30pm.
Picture via BobTheCorkDwarf's Flickr stream.