Could Six Nations benefit from injection of fresh blood?
It was always going to prove difficult for the Six Nations to match the recent Rugby World Cup in terms of thrills and spills and so it has proved – so far at least.
The first two rounds of the northern hemisphere’s premier championship have yet to set the rugby world alight or match the standard set by the sport’s showpiece event that captivated the rugby globe just a few short months ago.
Fatigue will surely have played its part with Europe’s finest players offered little chance for recuperation before being drawn back into the domestic battle. Changes within coaching and playing staff may also have contributed to the Championship’s failure to emerge from the World Cup’s shadow.
While the shifting of the Six Nations in the year after the sport’s World Cup to a date later in the calendar may be favoured by some, perhaps the long-term solution and key to a more entertaining Championship was offered by the sport’s showpiece event?
Georgia more than held their at the World Cup where they scored two notable victories against the higher-ranked and much-fancied Tonga and also Namibia. There were also brave but eventually fruitless defeats to titans New Zealand and Argentina.
But this was no overnight success as they’ve long been leading the charge for a place at the Six Nations’ table having dominated Europe’s second tier over the last decade.
Los Lelos captured their fifth straight European Nations Cup title last year – and eighth since the turn of the century – and are on course for another with two victories this year having cemented their position at the top of what is sometimes called the ‘Six Nations B’ table.
The Georgians’ headline-grabbing fourth consecutive World Cup appearance – their best ever performance – not only secured them many new fans but also automatic qualification for the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan – thanks to their third place finish in Pool C.
They appear more than ready to step up and their introduction could offer a thrilling new element of jeopardy to what is already a dramatic annual battle for Six Nations glory – as well as offer fresh impetus for the media and fans alike.
Tbilisi may not strike you as a rugby hotbed but there is huge interest in the sport in the country and they have attracted more than 50,000 fans to the National Stadium in recent years for crucial clashes.
It may not be as attractive to supporters as a weekend in Rome, for example, and its location on the edge of Europe bordering Asia may cause some other logistical issues but they should not be used as barrier to entry.
And the addition of a new country does not necessarily have to come at the expense of one of the existing competitors with the introduction of promotion/relegation between the Six Nations and European Nations Cup favoured by many.
The side clearly under most threat by that kind of proposal is Italy. The Azzurri exploded onto the scene with a stunning victory over Scotland in their first ever Six Nations appearance back in 2000 but they have struggled to maintain such high standards ever since with only the occasional upset to offer evidence that they belong among the elite.
They have collected the ‘Wooden Spoon’ a total of ten times since joining the Championship and have never finished better than 4th place which they have done on just two occasions – in 2007 and again six years later. But casting out one nation in favour of another may not benefit the game as a whole in the long run.
Octavian Morariu, president of Rugby Europe, the body responsible for the governance of international rugby in Europe outside of the Six Nations, is one of those calling for an expansion to seven or maybe eight teams to aid development.
World Rugby is intent on growing the game in developing and existing markets but sadly they have little influence over the Six Nations that is owned and run by the competing unions themselves.
Those same unions benefit greatly from the success of the competition with the Championship generating millions through broadcasting rights agreements and a variety of sponsorship deals.
Understandably the six unions currently bankrolled by that significant revenue are reluctant to welcome a new partner and accept a smaller share of the financial windfall on offer.
If you were in any doubt, Six Nations chief executive John Feehan made it quite clear on the eve of this year’s Championship by insisting it was not his job to ‘provide solutions’ for upwardly mobile countries like Georgia
The Six Nations is a business – and a fruitful one at that – and would only contemplate Georgia’s introduction if they offered a compelling financial argument when it came to possible TV and advertising revenue. Unfortunately Georgia does not possess that kind of commercial clout.
Even the imminent changes to the voting rights on the World Rugby Council that will grant developing nations more of a say on the future of the game will not prompt a change of heart on the part of the Six Nations.
But instead of focusing on what they can’t provide maybe ponder what they do bring to the table?
The northern hemisphere failed to provide a semi-finalist at the recent World Cup where the Six Nations repeatedly failed to topple one of their major southern hemisphere rivals.
Fears remain over the standard of rugby produced by Europe’s best and the threat of relegation from a currently comfy Six Nations set-up could inject the urgency required to fuel the necessary improvement.
With the door to the Six Nations firmly closed, if not locked, Rugby Europe’s best hope is to raise the profile of their own competition and nurture the sport’s following outside of the continent’s major markets to the point they become an attractive proposition.
The broadcasting of European Nations Cup Division 1A matches via the recently launched Rugbyeurope.tv is a huge step in the right direction and sure to increase exposure, drive revenues and fuel the development of the professional game – but it will of course take time.
That is not good news for Georgia who are craving top-flight opposition to build on their recent success but could find themselves with even less competitive fixtures.
With their place at the 2019 World Cup already assured the European Nations Cup takes on less significance and they are forced to rely on the generosity of their Tier 1 neighbours for meaningful fixtures.
The failure to provide Tier 2 nations with regular games against the sport’s giants outside of Rugby World Cups is another of the major barrier to the development of the game.
Georgia have been handed the chance to test themselves against the best on a handful of occasions – most recently against Ireland in 2014 – and Scotland will oblige this year. Romania, currently second in the European Nations Cup Division 1A table, have not played a Tier 1 team outside of a World Cup since 2006.
If a permanent place among the elite is not an option then Europe’s leading sides need to play their part in the development of the game and offer them regular opportunities to test themselves against the best.