The 2016 6 Nations wasn’t a great tournament for the Italians. After a promising opening game against the French in Paris their tournament went rapidly downhill with heavy defeats against England at home (9-40), Scotland at home (20-36), Ireland away (58-15) and culminated with a chastening defeat in Cardiff (67-14).
Under Jacques Brunel, Italy’s now departed head coach, the Italians style of play shifted from a forward dominated approach to a more open, expansive game. There is a strong case to make that this new game plan has not played to their strengths and has contributed to their stuttering development. Indeed, in Conor O’Shea’s first game in charge of Italy against South Africa, you could see a shift in emphasis back to traditional Italian strengths.
On the same day as the Italians assured themselves of the bottom spot in the 2016 6 Nations, about 2000 miles east in Tbilisi, Georgia were sealing the European Nations Cup title with victory over Romania in front of a crowd of over 50,000.
With the European Nations Cup being the second tier European competition, questions have now been raised regarding the prospects for Georgia and Romania and whether a route to the top European table – the 6 Nations, should be opened up for them.
In our view, the day when Georgia or Romania play a 6 Nations fixture is some way off. Here are the 3 main reasons why it is unlikely to happen.
(1) Playing standard
Let’s be honest about this. If we bemoan the quality of Italy in this 6 Nations, adding a Georgia or a Romania in their place will further dilute the standard, not improve it.
Georgia has been the class act in the recent Nations Cup with 10 wins out of 10 and only 75 points conceded, giving them a healthy points difference of +271. At the Rugby World Cup they defeated Tonga and Namibia and were competitive for periods against New Zealand and Argentina, before suffering fairly heavy defeats.
The Georgian domestic league is semi-professional but a lot of the top Georgian players ply their trade in the French Top 14. Age grade rugby in Georgia is improving and their under 20 team will appear in the 2016 World Rugby u20 Championship for the first time, following promotion from the tier below. Georgia will also host the 2017 event which should further support rugby development in the nation.
Romania has long flirted with being the best European side outside the traditional old “5 nations” countries but was overtaken by Italy in the push to formally join the top table. Sadly, Romanian rugby went in to a post-communist slump but has recently started to regain some of the form that saw them beat Wales, Scotland and France in the early 1980s.
They are some way behind Georgia in terms of playing standards and were comfortably beaten by Italy at the World Cup earlier this season.
As it stands, Romania are not strong enough to compete with the bottom teams in the 6 Nations. Georgia would provide a sterner test but even if they beat Italy in a one-off playoff game the quality of the 6 Nations will not be improved in the short term.
(2) 6 Nations ownership
The second reason why Georgia and Romania will find it hard to force themselves in to the 6 Nations is because of the ownership structure of the tournament.
At present the tournament is “owned” and run by the respective unions of the member nations, which would mean an existing member would have to give up their right to play in the 6 Nations to allow Georgia or Romania a potential spot in the tournament. Given the tournament revenues are so crucial for the unions why would they choose to give up this guaranteed income stream?
The 6 Nations chief executive, John Feehan, is on record talking about the importance of the revenues that flow from the tournament as a key driver in the commercial decisions of the member nations. It seems unlikely that the unions would vote for a change in structure that would see their revenues decrease.
(3) Commercial realities
Rugby is now a professional sport so all decisions need to be viewed through a commercial lens. We know that TV deals are big revenue earners for the 6 Nations and therefore the member unions, indeed the most recent BBC deal for the exclusive UK broadcast and online coverage of the Six Nations, is reported to have been worth £160 million for four years from 2014.
The value for the broadcaster (and therefore the 6 Nations) in the TV deals is a function of the number of viewers of a programme and the buying power of those viewers; put crudely, the wealth of the consumers who watch the programme.
If the 6 Nations brought in a play-off system with the bottom team moving in to the lower tier this would bring two problems. Firstly, it would be difficult to sell a TV package to a broadcaster if there is uncertainty over the teams that would be competing. For example, would the BBC or Sky pay as much for the rights to the 6 Nations if they knew that instead of Scotland or Wales playing in the tournament it was going to be Romania?
Secondly, we can’t ignore the fact that Georgia and Romania are not wealthy nations, so they are unlikely the bring with them the sort of commercial clout that would tempt the existing members to make a deal.
The reality is that if it was Russia and Germany pushing for inclusion the route open to them would have far less hurdles than those faced by Georgia and Romania.
The Italian problem
Italian rugby is not in good health with the national team struggling and the regional teams propping up the Pro12 table. As it currently stands, any route to the 6 Nations for Georgia or Romania would be at the expense of Italy, but if the rugby world can’t make Italy competitive what chance do we have with Georgia or Romania?
On the face of it Italy has lots going for it as a potential major rugby playing nation. It has a large population at 60 million, compared to Georgia (4.5 million) and Romania (19 million) and a healthy number of registered rugby players (82,143), against 7,113 in Georgia and 7,605 in Romania. It is also one of the largest economies in the world which should make it an attractive commercial option.
Italian rugby needs support or the good work of the last 10 years may be undone and the 6 Nations will become less competitive; World Rugby should not develop Georgia and Romania at the expense of Italy.
Follow the Argentina model?
Proponents of opening up the 6 Nations to Georgia and Romania often point to Argentina’s inclusion in a revamped Tri Nations as the model to show developing teams can make the leap across to the big leagues, but this is not an analogous situation.
Argentina were a strong, competitive nation before their inclusion in SANZAR’s competition; they are a populous and wealthy nation and their inclusion has made the old Tri Nations tournament a stronger commercial “product”.
The three major hurdles that stand in Georgia and Romania’s way did not apply to Argentina when they were seeking entry to the Tri Nations.
So what next for Georgia and Romania?
This article has set out why it is unlikely that we will see Georgia and Romania competing in the 6 Nations, by looking at it from the perspective of the 6 Nations committee, but if we consider the issue as a rugby supporter we get a different view.
If we want rugby to grow and develop we need World Rugby to provide strong direction and leadership and make the case to the traditional rugby nations for change. Practically this means:
- Financial support for tier 2 nations
- A clear path for progression of the tier 2 nations to the top competitions
- Incentives for the major nations to play tests against the leading tier 2 nations
- Coaching exchanges and development programmes
- Introduction of rugby at school and age grade levels
Once these initiatives are put in place the case for the likes of Georgia and Romania’s inclusion in an extended 6 Nations becomes a far stronger sell. If these nations get to play – and beat, some of the existing 6 Nations teams on a regular basis the defence for their exclusion becomes untenable.
Whether these levels of support will be fully provided are yet to be seen but the appointment of Bill Beaumont as the Chair of World Rugby in the place of Bernard Lapasset doesn’t auger well for the future of the game’s development. The excellent Tier 2 rugby blog by @T2Rugby discusses this appointment in more detail here.
To follow theblitzdefence on Facebook like us here.