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An extra dose of 'uncertainty' is behind the changes to the REC

By Tom Vinicombe
Merab Sharikadze. (Photo by Levan Verdzeuli/Getty Images)

Georgia may have once again entered the Rugby Europe Championship as short favourites to take out an unprecedented 12th title in 13 seasons of action, but there is one major hurdle they will have to overcome in 2023 that could freshen up the competition: knockout fixtures.


Year after year, Los Leos have racked up the wins and taken home the crown at the end of the tournament – only Romania in 2017 have been able to upset the established order of proceedings. The last five Championships have all fallen the way of Georgia, however, a tier-two side who have now scored two wins over tier-one opposition in the space of 12 months, besting Italy in Batumi in July and then overcoming Wales at the Principality Stadium in November.

But while Georgia have rightfully started their campaign as title favourites and brushed aside Germany over the weekend to reinforce that tag, their nearest competitors will be licking their lips knowing that their odds of taking home the crown have increased significantly thanks to the revamped structure.

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The tournament has expanded this year to include eight teams – Georgia, Romania, Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Poland and Germany – and in order to fit the competition into five rounds of action, a new format has been devised which sees the teams split across two groups for the opening three weekends. After the pool stages are completed, the top four sides will enter two rounds of sudden death action vying for the overall title, while the bottom four nations will engage in their own knockout fixtures. The action will culminate on March 19, with the top four sides playing in Spain and the bottom four heading to the Netherlands.

The new format means one bad game from Georgia – or perhaps one great game from one of their primary competitors – could see a new title-holder confirmed next month. According to Rugby Europe chief executive officer Florent Marty, that will make for a great competition.

“When you have the same winner for all the editions except one in the last decade or so, it’s not necessarily benefiting the uncertainty around the competition,” Marty says.

“Quite frankly, Georgia may still win – and of course we wish them the best of luck – but they will have to reach the final first and then will have to win the final.


“And if you look at some of the global-stage competitions, starting with the World Cup, it’s a very similar format. You have a round-robin phase and then you have a knockout phase where everything is at stake. If you over underperform one day, you are out. And if you overperform one day, you can cause a big upset. That’s what we like about the new format.”

The decision to expand the competition was not one taken lightly, with discussions kicking off back in 2019. Consideration was given towards creating a marketable, exciting tournament, but also to growing the game in Europe.


“We did a number of different workshops with the unions themselves to discuss different formats and different options,” says Marty.

“The decision to expand was absolutely unanimous because it’s obviously providing an opportunity for more teams to engage at that higher level.


“For the format itself, there gas been various considerations, but there was a large consensus to actually introduce that knockout stage because it provides that uncertainty. It also provides an opportunity to stage larger and more appealing events; you’re going to have fans be able to attend a double leader in two different locations.”

According to Marty, the intention is to produce a festival-like atmosphere in Amsterdam and Badajoz, the destinations for the two final events, and create two new must-see experiences on the rugby calendar for fans in Europe.

“We want to start building something and grow it over the years,” he says. “We know it takes time, so we’re not going to have U2 performing at the finals in year one, for example. But the idea is, year by year, improve the quality of the foreign experience so it will become a must-attend for the fans.

“At the end of the day, everything we do is for the fans, so they need to get a lot of pleasure out of coming to those events, watch two great rugby games and also enjoy what’s around them, from the in-stadium experience to everything that is built around.”

While the new format – with pre-selected locations for the finals – could mean that some teams might play just one home game throughout the tournament, the distribution of matches will even out over a two-year cycle, with Marty confirming that next year’s competition will feature the same two pools as 2023’s iteration, but with home and away games reversed.

“Over a two-year period of time, (the new structure) has no effect on the number of home games,” he says. “The one uncertainty, obviously, is linked to a sporting aspect, which is you have to win the right to host a semi-final, which is an additional carrot from the round-robin phase.

“And then for the location of the finals, we plan to rotate, so it’s not like it will be necessarily the same union hosting it for a number of years.”


The lowest-ranked side on aggregate over the two-year period will also automatically swap places with the top-ranked team from the Rugby Europe Trophy, with no promotion or relegation taking place at the end of the current tournament.

The ultimate goal of the competition, of course, remains bolstering the growing strength of rugby in Europe and recent results – including Georgia’s wins over tier-one opposition, suggest that goal is well and truly being met.

“Other than the traditional competitions, the Six Nations and Rugby Championship, we are the most represented competition at the World Cup,” Marty says. “We have three teams playing at the World Cup and I guess that’s the testimony to the value of the Rugby Europe Championship. Spain are clearly deserving as well, they were at the level of the other teams.

“So we can be proud about the level of the Rugby Europe Championship and at some point, and this is clearly something we also would encourage – we would hope that the World Cup would expand at some point so that there are more teams playing at the World Cup, and clearly what we want is to build team more teams to be ready to play at that level.”

The second and third rounds of this year’s Rugby Europe Championship will take place over the following two weeks, before all teams get a two-week rest. The knockout stages of the competition will kick off in early March.


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