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Is it time for a European Rugby Championship? Posted about 5 years ago

It’s great to share certain things – knowledge, wealth, good news. And some things are just made for sharing – pizza, a YouTube gem and the Six Nations.

Nothing engages the wider population like the battle for northern hemisphere supremacy with casual fans uniting with hardcore supporters to delight in what is supposed to be the best rugby the continent has to offer. That mass consumption fuels its popularity but sadly the main protagonists are not so keen in extending an invite to the party.

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Despite repeated pleas, the Six Nations Committee will not entertain requests to change the format with the introduction of promotion-relegation that would offer a country from the European Nations Cup (ENC) the chance to step up to the big stage.

A play-off between the country finishing last in the Six Nations and the winners of the second tier competition would be a step forward although logistically difficult given the format for the ENC that currently spans two years while calls to just eject an under-performing Scotland and replace them are a little sensationalist. Any kind of re-vamp is highly unlikely with Europe’s heavyweights understandably reluctant to jeopardise the significant revenue that TV rights, sponsorship and the matches themselves provide. And they have a case as it is important that we protect the sport’s crown jewels given their commercial clout and their pulling power to attract eyes and ears in what is a packed sporting calendar.

The promotion-relegation idea does not go far enough and is a short-term answer when the game should be looking long-term. With the Six Nations yet to be convinced by the possible long-term benefits of opening the door to another of their geographic neighbours, perhaps the answer is a whole new competition – a European Championship?

Just like its football namesake, the tournament could be staged every four years in the middle of the Rugby World Cup cycle and would replace the June tours for the elite nations. The six sides in the top division of the ENC – currently Georgia, Romania, Russia, Portugal, Belgium and Spain – would be pooled with their Six Nations counterparts with a subsequent knock-out stage deciding the European champion over five weekends.

The Six Nations would of course still dominate but over time that exposure would eventually pay rich dividends. Four pools of three teams may only provide the developing nations with a couple of games against their illustrious rivals but that would be priceless with Italy, the last side to join the Six Nations in 2000, a prime example of how a side can go from also-rans to fierce rivals in time if they are offered a chance to compete and learn against the best.

Even with the odds stacked greatly against them, Georgia and Romania pushed Scotland at the 2011 World Cup but could not conjure a shock win while Russia were outclassed on their World Cup debut. Imagine how they could upset the world order with a little further help? But sadly, until that materialises then there will be no change which will only damage the sport and the efforts of the International Rugby Board to grow the game.

So much hard work is being done to nurture the game in many parts of continental Europe and that endeavour should be acknowledged and rewarded by the IRB with promise of regular elite competition in the future.

The IRB would of course have to approve the competition given the impact on the touring schedule but the Six Nations Committee and Fédération Internationale de Rugby Amateur – Association Européenne de Rugby, which has governed European rugby for the best part of a century, would have to drive the change if they can only be convinced it has merit.

If the decision-makers want further evidence of what possible riches lie ahead they only need look at the status of the Euros in football. Mix that potential with the success and hunger for pan-European competition, both on and off the pitch, that we have witnessed in the Heineken Cup and the burning desire on the part of the developing nations and you have the makings of another jewel in the rugby crown. Not only would such a revolutionary move significantly aid the development of those second tier sides but could also generate bumper TV rights deals and lucrative sponsorship packages.

Such a competition may not benefit those areas of the world that would otherwise host a side from the northern hemisphere – the likes of the USA, Canada, Japan and maybe even the Pacific island nations – but the touring schedule could be structured accordingly to make sure that they did not miss out. And forward-thinking from the European unions could inspire the sport’s other giants – New Zealand, South Africa and Australia – to embrace the developing nations in their own regions.

The guardians of the XVs game also need to ask whether they can afford to carry on with the status quo? Sevens continues to make great strides in terms of participation and profile with the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio paving the way for increased investment that is evident in the depth of competition in the Sevens World Series.

That will also be reflected at the Rugby World Cup Sevens tournament that before long will be a truly global competition unlike the Rugby World Cup that in truth comes down to a battle between a handful of sides. Successes like Tonga’s victory over France back in 2011 will remain the exception rather than the norm until the sport’s leading lights acknowledge and act on their responsibility to offer concrete evidence of their desire to grow the game for the benefit of all.

Can you see the Six Nations being replaced with a Europe-wide competition and would you support the proposal? Comment below…

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Graham Jenkins is a freelance sports journalist who has been reporting around the rugby globe for over 20 years. A former editor of the leading rugby union website Scrum.com, he is a veteran of five World Cups and cites England’s 2003 triumph as the most memorable moment of his professional career - closely followed by a night out with Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal.

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