The Six Nations doesn’t need to give up on Italy – but it should also welcome Georgia’s advances, writes James Harrington.
There is, we heard this week, no room for Georgia in the Six Nations, at least not in the short-term future. Which is wrong – but it is equally wrong to suggest Italy should be booted out to make room for them.
Hopes had been high among Georgian supporters that their time had come at last. They have the 55,000-seat stadium, which they can – and do – fill. They have the backing of a billionaire former prime minister who, according to reports, can buy Donald Trump dollar for dollar and still have a tidy $800million in the bank. And Italy, after two dismal matches in which they leaked 96 points, seemed primed for the cull.
But the Six Nations’ chief executive John Feehan told Britain’s Daily Mail: “It is a closed competition, owned and controlled by the six unions … Right now, we are perfectly happy that we have the six strongest teams in Europe in our competition.”
As figurative door-slammings go, that seemed fairly definitive. Feehan did, however, offer a hint of something that might pass for an iota hope in the right light: “Are we closed to every scenario? No, but it takes a while to see a convincing argument. 10 or 15 years … At this stage, talk of bringing in other teams is premature.”
This is nothing new. Feehan is merely repackaging comments he made in The Independent a year ago. Then, he said: “It’s not our job to provide solutions for Georgia, Romania or anyone else.”
That’s true: it’s not. The Six Nations is about money, not development. But it is a sentiment that clashes with World Rugby’s mission to grow the game.
There is no rugby reason to deny Georgia a shot. They have won the second-tier international competition Rugby Europe Championship (formerly known as the European Nations Cup) for eight of the past nine years, and have not lost a match in the competition since 2012. Their third-place pool finish in the 2015 World Cup – their best result in fourth back-to-back appearances in the tournament – means they have automatically qualified for Japan 2019. And World Rugby recognises them as a ‘high-performance team’.
On the field, Georgia are doing all that is asked of them and more. They are currently 12th in the World Rugby rankings, two places above Italy and three below World Cup semi-finalists Argentina. And, yet, outside World Cups, they hardly ever get the chance to test themselves against Tier One nations.
There are those who would claim that Georgia would be unprepared for the rigours of regular Tier One rugby because they spend their days battering the bejaysus out of other Tier Two sides. That is both self-fulfilling and patronising. France first joined the competition in 1910. They won just one game in their first four tournaments. It took them until 1954 to win a share of the title, and their first outright crown did not come until 1959.
Others would point to the travails of Italy as evidence of how tough the step-up can be. Yes, the step-up is tough, and yes, Italian rugby is a mess right now – but this should be neither an excuse to jettison the Azzurri, or reason not to consider Georgia … especially after the relative success of Argentina since they joined an expanded Rugby Championship.
Suggesting a two-leg play-off between the wooden-spoonists of the Six Nations and the winners of the Rugby Europe Championship is also not a realistic way to close the schism between European rugby’s big six and their Tier Two relations.
Promotion and relegation works in competitions such as the Aviva Premiership that are drawn out over nine months. It is not really feasible for a hectic seven-week international competition where a bad start means it’s all over before it begins. Besides, losing a Six Nations place would be a disaster for the sport in, for example, Italy … or even Georgia.
Rather, this should be an opportunity to expand the competition brand into new territories. It’s time the Six Nations showed them – and other nations, such as Romania and Germany, Portugal and Spain – a way in. There needs to be a recognisable path to rugby’s top table in Europe, even if it presages a change in how the tournament is run and organised. And it should start with more regular matches against Tier One opposition for big fish teams that are dominating their small pool.
The good news is that – for Georgia at least – the process may be starting. They played Scotland in November, just their fifth game against Tier One opponents outside World Cups in 28 years. But they will play Argentina in June, and are due to face Wales in November. And talk now is that a Georgia-based franchise could play in either the Pro12, or even, though less likely, Super Rugby.
This is the way forward. Georgia have been battering on the door for long enough. Their route into “rugby’s greatest championship” could be fast-tracked so it comes more quickly than the 10 to 15 years Feehan has envisaged – but it cannot happen overnight.