Shaughnessy playoff system

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The Shaughnessy playoff system is a method of determining the champion of a sports league that is not in a divisional alignment. It involves the participation of the top four teams in the league standings in a single elimination tournament.[1][2] While the first round of the playoffs involve the pairing of the first- and fourth-place teams in one contest (whether it be a single game or a series of games) and the second- and third-place teams in the other,[3] a variant of the Shaughnessy playoffs would pair the first- and third-place teams in one semifinal round and the second- and fourth-place teams in the other. In either variant, the winners of the first two games would then compete for the league championship.

History and usage[edit]

North America[edit]

The Shaughnessy playoff system was invented in 1933 by Frank Shaughnessy, the general manager of the Montreal Royals minor league baseball team of the International League. After its successful implementation by the International League, the popularity of the new postseason format spread to other leagues in other sports, including the All-America Football Conference (which used the Shaughnessy playoff system in the league's last season of existence)[4] and the minor American football league American Association, which used the format in five of its championship seasons.[5] The format has also been widely used in minor league baseball on all levels.[6]

In the Original Six era of the National Hockey League (1942-1967), the circuit adopted a Shaughnessy playoff system (first place vs. fourth place and second place vs. third place) in which the paired teams played in a best-four-of-seven-games series with the winners advancing to the Stanley Cup championship round.

The National Women's Soccer League, which played its first season in 2013, uses a Shaughnessy playoff to determine its champion.


More recently, the Shaughnessy playoff system has been adopted outside of North America. In English rugby union, the format is currently used to determine the winner of the Premiership,[7] and from 2012–13 is also used in the second-level RFU Championship to determine the team to be promoted to the Premiership.[8] The Premiership and Championship formats differ only in the number of matches contested—the Premiership playoff uses one-off matches, while all matches in the Championship playoff are two-legged. The Celtic League in Ireland, Scotland and Wales, now known as Pro12, adopted an identical system starting in 2009–10, the season before that league expanded to include two teams from Italy.

In French rugby union, the Shaughnessy playoff is currently used to determine the second of two promotion spots in the second-tier Rugby Pro D2, though in that case the teams involved are the second- through fifth-placed teams, as the first-place team earns automatic promotion. Previously, the pure Shaughnessy system had been used to determine the champion of Top 14, but that league's playoffs expanded to six teams starting in 2009–10.

Southern Hemisphere[edit]

In rugby union, the Shaughnessy system has been widely used throughout the SANZAR countries of South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.

The Super Rugby competition, featuring teams from all three SANZAR countries, used the Shaughnessy format throughout its history as the Super 12 and Super 14, ending in 2010. With the competition's expansion to 15 teams as Super Rugby in 2011, the playoffs now involve six teams, with three conference champions and three "wild cards" advancing.

In South Africa, the Currie Cup uses a Shaughnessy playoff to determine the champions of both of its divisions (Premier and First).

In New Zealand, the professional ITM Cup (formerly Air New Zealand Cup) adopted the Shaughnessy format in 2009, after having used an eight-team playoff bracket in its first two seasons in 2007 and 2008. In 2011, the ITM Cup split into two divisions, effectively re-creating the three-division system that existed in the National Provincial Championship era. The playoffs in both the new Premiership and Championship divisions use the Shaughnessy system except in World Cup years, in which only the top two teams contest a final. Since its inception in 2007, the amateur Heartland Championship has used the Shaughnessy system, implemented at the last group stage, to determine the winners of both of its trophies, the Meads and Lochore Cups.

Australia's National Rugby Championship, set to begin play in 2014, will use a Shaughnessy playoff. The country's previous attempt to establish a national league, the Australian Rugby Championship, also used a Shaughnessy playoff, but was scrapped after its only season in 2007.


A modified Shaughnessy system has been used by the University Athletic Association of the Philippines for its basketball tournaments since 1993. In the semifinals with a #1 vs. #4 and #2 vs. #3 match-ups, the top two seeds possessing the twice to beat advantage, a variant of the best of three series where the higher seed has 1–0 series lead. The winners advance to the best of three finals; it has never been referred to as the "Shaughnessy system" in the country. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) adopted it for their basketball tournaments starting in 1998. It has since been adopted to other sports by other collegiate leagues, and in the Philippine Basketball Association, since then


As it was used in the playoffs of the 2008–09 Guinness Premiership:


Leicester Tigers 24 – 10 Bath
Try: Hipkiss 17' c
Vesty 38' c
Moody 69' c
Con: Dupuy (3/3)
Pen: Dupuy 51'
Report Try: Claassens 46' m
Hooper 57' m
Walkers Stadium, Leicester
Attendance: 18,850

Harlequins 0 – 17 London Irish
Report Try: Hudson 52' c
Catt 75' c
Con: D. Armitage (2/2)
Pen: D. Armitage 43'
Twickenham Stoop, London
Attendance: 12,638


Leicester Tigers 10 – 9 London Irish
Try: Crane 61' c
Con: Dupuy (1/1)
Pen: Dupuy
Report Pen: D. Armitage (2)
Drop: Hewat
Twickenham, London
Attendance: 81,601
Referee: Wayne Barnes


  1. ^ Nothing Minor About It: The American Association/AFL of 1936-1950 - Bob Gill, Pro Football Researchers Association (1990)
  2. ^ International League Governors' Cup Championship - from official AAA baseball website
  3. ^ “It’s a Minor Thing” – Steven Brainerd, Professional Football Researchers Association (1988)
  4. ^ All-America Football Conference - Stan Grosshandler, Professional Football Researchers Association (1980)
  5. ^ Nothing Minor About It: The American Association/AFL of 1936-1950 - Bob Gill, Pro Football Researchers Association (1990)
  6. ^ The Rise of the Midwest League and the Decline of the Three-I League - Tim Rask, Society for American Baseball Research (2007)
  7. ^ "Aviva Premiership Rugby". Premiership Rugby Limited. Retrieved 27 May 2013. 
  8. ^ "Championship: RFU to abolish play-off pool stages". BBC Sport. 2012-05-17. Retrieved 2012-05-17.