The Super Bowl shows the interest and spectacle that can be generated by play-off matches, and the Six Nations would be fools to miss out on this. In their first ever Six Nations, Italy had a points difference of -122. Last year, their points difference was -145, and they conceded 29 tries, a tournament record. Not exactly fantastic progress over the seventeen tournaments. On the other hand, Georgia have won sixteen straight matches in the Rugby Europe Championship, and have only failed to win the title five times since the turn of the century. At the moment, they are ranked higher than Italy, so why shouldn’t they have a chance to play in the Six Nations?
Rugby union in the northern hemisphere is generally a lot poorer than that played in the south, with England being the only team from north of the equator to win the World Cup. At the last edition, in 2015, the four teams of the Rugby Championship (Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina) made it to the semi-finals. Since Los Pumas were inducted into this tournament in 2012, they have shown gradual improvement, winning a match in each of the last three editions. Supporting the growth of rugby in Italy was given by chief executive John Feehan for no relegation in the Six Nations, but what about Georgia, Romania, and Russia? Does promoting growth in these countries not matter? Even if they don’t achieve promotion, the opportunity of regular fixtures against the top Northern hemisphere sides would surely inspire these, and other European nations to improve. Legacy is one of the big buzzwords around sport lately, and there can’t be many better legacies than opening up the sport to millions of fans across the continent, from Moscow to Madrid.
This doesn’t mean that I am opposed to Georgia joining the Six Nations, I just think that their inclusion shouldn’t be at Italy’s expense. They have certainly earned the right to be considered by consistently qualifying for the World Cup since 2003 and winning the European Nations Cup consecutively for the past six years. The latter achievement certain implies that they need more challenging competition to play against.
However, Georgia would fare no better than Italy in the tournament and most likely do worse, at least in the short term. Since Italy joined the Six Nations in 2000, they have ended up with the Wooden Spoon 11 out of 17 times. Despite given 17 years, Italy have not managed to gulf the gap and with relegation this would probably take even longer with Georgia.
If Georgia truly wants to improve their team, then they need to strengthen their domestic league in a way similar to Italy. Exposing their players to better opposition on a weekly basis will improve the skill level of their players and also give them a larger pool of players to choose from alongside those that already play abroad.
Italy need to stay in the Six Nations to be stable in order to become true European contenders. They have a new coaching staff, one that has experience with big European teams and I believe that O’Shea can make significant progress with them by the 2019 World Cup.
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