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Six Nations needs European growth

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It is Europe where Six Nations should be looking for growth... not South Africa

It was always going to take something rather significant to get Saracens out of the headlines this season, although few likely expected the prospect of South Africa joining the Guinness Six Nations to be the story that would finally do it.

In fairness, there has been a slight shift in focus in South African rugby of late with the Cheetahs and Southern Kings having decamped to Europe and joined the Guinness PRO14.

But the perception had been that SA Rugby and the Springboks were happy at the international level as part of the annual Rugby Championship tournament with New Zealand, Australia and Argentina.

If more movement to Europe were to occur, it seemed more likely that it would be the remaining Super Rugby sides – the Sharks, Stormers, Bulls and Lions – making the transition, or potentially one or two Currie Cup sides,  joining the Cheetahs and the Kings in the cross-hemisphere PRO14.

But money, more than any other element, dictates professional sport and it is fair to say that South African rugby is not currently in the most fortuitous financial position. 

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With broadcast deals accounting for the largest slice of a union or club’s income, South Africa’s position close to Greenwich meridian does not help it garner the TV revenues from Australia and New Zealand that it would like. Much closer in time to the UK, however, South African rugby is located nicely to make the most of prime-time broadcast slots in Western Europe.

The appeal for the Springboks is obvious and arguably goes beyond financial incentives., The Rugby Championship has taken its fair amount of flak in recent seasons, while the intensity and spectacle of the Six Nations – if not always the skill levels – continues to surpass that of its southern hemisphere rival.

Similarly, the lure for the Six Nations is also obvious. The Springboks are reigning World Cup champions and are a year-on-year big-ticket in rugby. Their addition to the tournament would be fascinating, to say the least.

The proposal faces its fair share of logistical issues with flights to South Africa taking over ten hours from London Heathrow, not to mention the extension of the tournament in games and duration and the reintroduction of bye weeks. But the Springboks are an established rugby nation and an easy boost for the Six Nations, not that one is necessarily currently needed.

The longer game – and the one the Six Nations should be playing – is furthering the growth of rugby outside of the traditional powerhouse nations. Fans have long clamoured for Georgia’s introduction to the Six Nations, especially with Italy’s waning fortunes of late, while Japan are another northern hemisphere nation that have shown themselves to be ready for an introduction to an annual tier one competition.

Both these nations have their drawbacks, most notably Georgia’s economy is not the potential gold mine the members of the Six Nations would presumably like in the tournament, while there are even more logistical issues involved with Japan than there are with South Africa given the drastically different time zone and a slightly longer flight.

Where the Six Nations’ efforts should be concentrated are in Europe. The competition sits on the doorstep of a number of large economies, all of whom are conveniently located in terms of travel duration and time zones for preferable broadcast slots.

In many of these nations, football is king and the national sport as it is all over the world now, but there is room for growth for rugby union as potentially the second or third sport in those countries, just as it is in most of rugby’s traditional strongholds.

The Rugby Europe Championship is currently taking place and after two rounds of competition, Georgia and Portugal sit atop the pile with both nations still undefeated. Spain have beaten recent World Cup side Russia and put up a strong challenge to Georgia this past weekend. Belgium also have a win to their name, while the Russians and Romania both struggle at the bottom of the table and are winless in their opening two games.

The trio of Georgia, Spain and Portugal have all profited from successful age-grade sides and they are three nations, unlike Romania, Russia and even Scotland to a certain extent, that are trending upwards at a noticeable rate.

In the tier below that, the Netherlands are looking strong at the top of the Trophy and they too have benefitted from an uptick in the quality of players coming through their age-grade pathway with a number set to make a significant impact in the Top 14 over the next few years. Germany are a little further off the pace in that division, but with large investment beginning to come in, they are a nation to keep an eye on over the coming years.

The Rugby Europe umbrella also boasts a thriving under-20s scene and women’s tournaments and they operate on a shoestring budget in comparison to the riches that the Six Nations can call upon. If there is a genuine desire to grow the game – and thus eventually grow the money coming into the game – this is where the Six Nations need to look.

If the Six Nations were to align itself more closely with Rugby Europe and look to work with them, it would be to the benefit of both organisations, as well as the global prosperity of the game. The Six Nations doesn’t even need to incorporate relegation and promotion to get this ball rolling.

If the Six Nations were to invest into the Rugby Europe Championship, which currently broadcasts its games for free through Rugby Europe TV, there is no reason why it couldn’t be rebranded as the Six Nations Trophy and included in the broadcast package that the current Six Nations are putting together that will include men’s, women’s, under-20s and autumn internationals.

What rugby needs to grow is a larger group of nations playing the sport at a high level and in order to finance that growth, they need to work on developing nations with the economies and potential broadcast deals to make the sport sustainable.

It’s not going to bring the short-term boost that CVC – if their investment goes through – would want and that South Africa’s inclusion would garner, but it is the approach that will bring a much brighter long-term future for rugby in Europe, the northern hemisphere and globally.

If the second tier of European rugby can be strengthened, suddenly the argument for promotion and relegation in the Six Nations becomes a stronger one, not only because the team coming up will be in a better place to compete with the established nations, but also because the relegated side will not be being cast out into the wilderness as they currently would be.

Rugby has repeatedly shown that when organisations work in unison, greater things can be achieved for both parties and cooperation between the Six Nations and Rugby Europe would be no different, just as Premiership Rugby’s compromises with the RFU helped send England to the World Cup final last year.

The Six Nations are one of the few entities in rugby that can afford to delay short-term gratification for greater reward in the long-term. Now is the time to push them to do just that.

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It is Europe where Six Nations should be looking for growth... not South Africa
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