The first round of the American National Rugby League playoffs will be staged this weekend and the opening games look to be extremely competitive. The AMNRL has introduced a new postseason format for 2011 modeled on the system used by the NRL in Australia. The big difference this year is that one of the teams in action this weekend will still go through to the next round even with a loss. The team that finished at the top of the standings at the end of the regular season gets a first round bye and the sixth placed team is eliminated.
Consequently, #1 New York Knights have earned a bye after clinching the Atlantic Conference minor premiership, leaving #2 Connecticut Wildcats, #3 Bucks County Sharks, #4 Northern Raiders and #5 Aston Bulls to slug it out in the opening round, while #6 Delaware Vipers are done for the season. The postseason action kicks off Friday night in New York City with the first Qualifying Final when the Wildcats and Bulls will get it on in what should be a cracker given that when they last met they played out a dramatic extra time tie. And that was just a week ago at War at the Shore, so it’s safe to assume that both sides will still be fired up and ready to go only this time there’s much more at stake.
Last week, Connecticut jumped out to a handy 18-0 lead only to see Aston whittle away at the margin and eventually even things up with precious few ticks left on the clock in OT. But that was then and this is now and you can rest assured there won’t be a repeat under the lights at Pier 40 in Manhattan. There can’t be, of course, as one team has to go through to next week’s semifinals.
The second Qualifying Final is set for Saturday afternoon at Shark Park in Falls Township Park, PA, when Bucks County hosts the visiting Northern Raiders. The Sharks won the season opener between these two 30-10 way back in early June and then got the better of them again by 36-18 a few weeks later. However, the Raiders found some winning form through the remainder of the regular season, while Bucks County stumbled across the finish line so this one could literally go either way.
Of the four teams in action this weekend, three will stay alive. The two winners, plus the highest seeded losing side will all advance to the semifinals. The Knights will have home field advantage when they host the lowest remaining seed and the third highest remaining seed will be away at the second highest remaining seed. The winners of those games will go into Grand Final XIV on August 20.