The argument for Georgia to be given the opportunity to join the 6 Nations Rugby Tournament has been gathering apace for a while now and Sir Clive Woodward’s article in the Daily Mail last week has taken it beyond journalistic fervor and given notice that even someone who has graced the tournament both as a player and a coach has called ‘time’ on the tournament in the format it now takes.

The fact that John Feehan, Chief Executive of the 6 Nations Tournament, has come out and stated categorically that “There is no vacancy. Right now we are perfectly happy that we have the six strongest teams in Europe in our competition” seems to have put an end to the discussion.

But has it or should it?

I have been close to Italian rugby since moving to Italy in 2003 and, in that time, I have experienced the highs – most recently beating, an admittedly very poor, South Africa – and the lows, – most recently being on the wrong end of a drubbing by Ireland in Rome. I have fallen in and out of love with the national team and their coaches and have been delighted, surprised, mystified and massively disappointed with them in equal measure. I am not approaching this from an ‘external’, or negative perspective.

The single most frustrating aspect to the national team (if you exclude the shocking political backdrop that doesn’t help at all) is that, in real terms, Italy has NOT improved since they joined the 6 Nations tournament. Out of the 16 tournaments they have participated in, they have finished last on 11 occasions and have never been higher than 4th – something they achieved in 2007 and 2013 – and have an 85% losing record, having only won 12 out of 85 matches played in that time.

However passionate a supporter you are of Italy and however you try to ‘spin’ the facts, it is simply does not make for positive reading. The threat of relegation might just bring the best out of Italy, and all other teams, in the same way that Italy’s potential inclusion into the 5 Nations did in the years leading up to them becoming fully fledged members.

If we then bring World Rankings into the equation and the case for keeping the 6 Nations a ‘closed shop’ becomes even less watertight. As I write, Italy sit in 14th position (and have never been higher than 8th) and are the 7th ranked team in Europe behind the other 6 Nations teams and Georgia. They are also over 8 points, on the ranking system, behind the next lowest ranked member of the 6 Nations, Scotland, who sit in 8th position in the rankings. For those unfamiliar with ranking points, 8 points is a significant gap on the scale.

Just to briefly take a step back in time, Italy were knocking on the, then 5 Nations, door for some time before being granted entry in 2000. They were allowed in, primarily, as they had been for a while, seen as the next best team in Europe and had ‘earned the right’ for inclusion through their performances in the European Championship (the second tier competition in Europe). Logical and well-earned then?

Well lets just look at this in greater detail.

Italy competed at this level from 1936-1938 and then from 1952 until their inclusion in the 6 Nations in 2000. So, 40 years of exposure. They won the tournament only once, came second 9 times and came third on 8 occasions. Hardly dominant.

Georgia, by comparison, have won the same tournament (albeit under a different name) 9 times since 2000 and have never finished worse than 2nd  in that time!

The argument, at a purely rugby level, for reviewing the composition of the 6 Nations is compelling. There also appear to be no financial reasons that Georgia can not pay its ‘membership fees’ (being backed by a billionaire) and the level of support for them is strong; they regularly get over 50,000 fans in to watch key matches. There appear to be no logical reasons as to why they should not be considered.

The traditionalists will all say that the 6 Nations, as it is, is the best rugby tournament in the world and that it is steeped in history. These two facts alone should be enough to prevent any need to even contemplate changing it, surely?.

Yes it is, without doubt, the best tournament and I am acutely aware of the history. It has been a huge part of my life for as long as I can remember. However in life, in business and in sport, change is a requirement. Anything that stays as it is for too long is prone to wither and die.

It wasn’t all that long ago that the RFU said that the idea of having a Rugby World Cup was a preposterous (my word not theirs) idea. Where would we be without it now? The idea that Argentina could join the Tri Nations was also seen as a flight of fancy – what a huge impact they have made to the tournament and look at how their rugby has improved as a direct result. The list of how innovation and change has improved the game of rugby and helped develop the game in a number of countries all over the world is far too long to mention here though. Suffice to say that change is not a bad thing.

I know that it is not in the remit of the 6 Nations to develop rugby – that falls firmly at the feet of World Rugby. But surely they shouldn’t be so insular that they do not believe that they could and should be a force for good in European rugby at the very least.

The final nail in Mr Feehan’s coffin are his very own words. He has recently stated the following; “Are we closed to every scenario? No, but it takes a while to see a convincing argument — 10 or 15 years.”

I agree 100%.

Italy have been in the 6 Nations for 16 years – so far more time than he has asked for. Have they made a positive impact in that time? It depends on how you measure it.Weekends in Rome to watch the rugby are, rightly so, hugely popular and the thought of swapping it for Tiblisi might not have the same appeal – although it does look a beautiful city. Success on the pitch is less persuasive an argument. There is a stack of evidence to suggest that their membership should, at the very least be questioned if there is a viable option.

I am not an advocate of automatic relegation and promotion and nor do I want Italy to lose their place at the top table of European rugby. I do, however, think that the bottom team at the end of the 6 Nations tournament should have a play off against the winners of the Tier 2 European tournament. I also think that it should be, in order to minimise the impact on an already congested calendar, a one-off match at a neutral venue (one of the other five, non relegation threatened, 6 Nations venues) two weeks after the end of the respective tournaments.

To those who will raise their hands and say ‘wouldn’t it be a potential disaster if a team, other than Italy, should find themselves finishing last’ I simply say this. Georgia have never won a match against any of the current 6 Nations teams.

Surely none of them should be overly concerned that they could lose. If they are concerned then maybe, just maybe, they have already lost the right to remain part of this exclusive club!

John Feehan quotes taken from Chris Foy’s article in The Daily Mail.


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