With the return of the Six Nations, columnists from various media outlets have been exploring the wider context of the championship, and its long-term future. Aside from the Lions prospects, concerns over the new points system and the various metaphors applied to Eddie Jones, the other issue that has been given disproportionate coverage is that of a potential Georgian entry into the Six Nations within the next five years. For the moment, there doesn’t appear to be much movement, which is unsurprising considering that any solution promoting Georgia to Europe’s premier international competition would lead to an existing Six Nations’ member to be relegated, with Italy looking the most likely candidate.
But beyond Italy, it is understandable why other teams aren’t willing to take the lead and try and push this through. For England and Ireland, the concern isn’t too strong, they both have in form teams currently and neither has finished lower than fourth since 2013. However, rugby bosses will be aware that by sanctioning a relegation/promotion system, there is the likelihood in the long run that one of these two teams be relegated, and for English fans especially, that would be unacceptable. For Wales and France, this concern would be magnified, with both teams having underperformed since the turn of the decade, and with the possibilities of relegation looking all that much more likely. And finally, to Scotland. The Scots can field their strongest team for a generation in this year’s Six Nations and have shown real progress over Vern Cotter’s tenure, none more so in last week’s brilliant victory over the Irish. But, for Scottish Rugby fans accustomed to looking over their shoulders and nail biting, the possibility that they could be relegated from the top division would be too much of a risk.
Separately, there are other concerns about inducting Georgia into the competition. Firstly, the weather. Although the games in this year’s Six Nations have largely benefitted from decent weather, for those who remember England’s match against Italy in a freezing Rome in 2012 and the cancellation of the France-Ireland game in the same year, there is always the possibility of poor conditions when playing in the winter. In Tbilisi in February, the daily mean is 3.1 degrees centigrade. If the competition were to welcome Milton Haig’s men, then there is every likelihood that more games will be postponed because of the weather. Moreover, with the introduction of the new points system, any teams playing in Tbilisi would be at a disadvantage, because of the likely poor conditions.
Another concern for the Six Nations bosses surrounds flying time and jet-lag for the players. There is already a concern in world rugby that players aren’t getting enough rest between games and that there are already too many games per season. If Georgia were promoted, the strain put on players would only increase, although it wouldn’t be of the same magnitude as the competitors in the Rugby Championship.
And ultimately, is altering the Six Nations system worth it? Would it be good for the game? If relegation were introduced, it would probably encourage Italy to improve, but the contention that Italy are poorer than Georgia based on the current World Rankings is misleading. Because of the way the rankings are compiled, and the lack of access Georgia has to Tier 1 opposition, Georgia’s ranking reflects their dominance over teams such as Germany, Romania and Spain; whereas Italy’s rank reflects the fact that they play every other Six Nations team annually and the Southern Hemisphere giants regularly. So yes, while Italy’s performances since joining the tournament in 2000 have been disappointing, there is absolutely no guarantee that Georgia would be able to improve at a greater rate.
A more reasonable proposal to improve the quality of rugby played by Tier 2 nations would be to put a quota on the number of matches Tier 1 sides have to play against them per year. In the case of the Autumn Internationals (in the Northern Hemisphere), teams could be forced to play half of their matches against Tier 2 opposition, allowing teams such as the Pacific Islands, the United States and others to compete at a higher level. It would then be more reasonable if that proposal bore fruit, for relegation/promotion to be introduced to the Six Nations Championship.