End-of-season play-offs were used to determine the premiers. However, looking back from today, the system utilised seems rather bizarre and haphazard.
The method did have a structure, but it is at first not apparent. While it is clear that the season ended in a Final, the semi-finals were not run along what we would call an orthodox path.
The unusual aspect, from our perspective, is that the wins/draws in the semis and Final would, in the same manner as occurred during the regular season, see teams continue to earn competition points on the premiership table (2 for a win, 1 for a draw).
In reality, the semi-finals were not sudden-death matches for the higher-ranked clubs. It also meant that if the first placed team entered the Final two points ahead of their second-placed opponent, a loss would only bring the teams together on the table, and bring about the need for another Final to split the teams.
The benefit of this method was that a team’s performance over the club rounds was a decisive factor in who played in the Final. It also effectively gave a decided advantage to the minor premiers. Conversely, it made many semi-final games irrelevant, resulting in poor crowd attendances, and clubs fielding below-strength teams.
In 1908, the first week of the play-offs featured eight of the nine clubs, with the last placed Cumberland dropping out (having a worse for/against than Wests). After competition points were awarded for wins in the eight team ‘Qualifying Round’, the top four teams progressed to the semi-finals, where teams 1 and 2 played 3 and 4 respectively.
Again two points were awarded to the semi-final winners, and the teams then left in positions one and two on the table played the Final (Souths and Easts were both equal first on 20 points).
The Rabbitohs victory in the Final gave them another 2 points, and, as clear winners on the table, were awarded the premiership. Had the Final ended in a draw, each team would have received one competition point, and a second Final would have been required.
In 1909 Balmain and Souths were scheduled to play in the Final. However, the ‘black-and-golds’ were still two points behind the Rabbitohs on the table, and Balmain needed to beat South Sydney twice to take the premiership. Faced with this obstacle, Balmain’s decision to forfeit the 1909 Final was not quite the sacrifice it has been portrayed to have been.
In 1910 and 1911 the League did not utilise semi-finals at all. However, a win/draw in the Final continued to earn points on the competition table, meaning the minor premiers still had the advantage.
At the end of the 1910 club rounds, the 1st placed Newtown entered the Final against Souths with a one point advantage. While it meant the Final would decide the premiership, the Bluebags enjoyed the benefit of knowing a draw would give each team just one point.
Down 4-2 in the dying moments of the 1910 Final, Newtown elected to take a shot at goal to secure a draw instead of going all out for victory. The goal was duly kicked, the match ended at 4-4, and Newtown won the premiership.
[Some have claimed that Newtown’s victory in the 1910 Final is the first premiership success to be achieved by a club in its debut appearance in a play-offs series. Whether a stand-alone Final constitutes a play-offs series is debatable.]
In 1911 the regular season ended with Glebe in first place on 22 pts, followed by Easts and Souths, both on 20. The latter two clubs were made to play-off to decide who would continue in the competition and play Glebe in the Final.
The Tri-colours won, but were not awarded two competition points as the match was a play-off to split the clubs, not a semi-final.
It meant that Glebe were still two points ahead, and Easts had to beat them twice to gain the four points needed to get in front on the table, and to take the premiership. Led by Dally Messenger, the Easterners duly toppled Glebe in two Finals, winning the competition for 1911.
The failure of Glebe to win the premiership, the first minor premiers to do so, resulted in the NSWRL dumping the play-offs system completely.
Between 1912 and 1926, the premiership was awarded on a first-past-the-post basis. A Final was played on the rare occasion that two teams finished the season in equal first place.
Ironically, it was Glebe that suffered the most under the new system. During the following 14 seasons, Glebe, never quite first, finished in the top four 10 times. Despite their consistency, there was no means to challenge the minor premiers.
In 1922 Glebe managed to finish in first place, but they shared that position with North Sydney, necessitating a Final. The ‘red-and-blacks’ won 35-3.
In 1929 Glebe were tossed out of the competition by the NSWRL – one of League’s most powerful clubs in its first two decades, the ‘Reds’ never won the premiership.