On the official Facebook page of the RBS Six Nations, there was a drawing featuring caricatures of Georgian and Romanian rugby players as barbarians charging into an impenetrable medieval Six Nations castle. At first one might just laugh at this attempt at banter, but, as the old saying goes, a picture tells a thousand words. The doodle is just the latest chapter in the ongoing debate about the possibilities of including new nations in the northern hemisphere’s premier tournament.
At last year’s World Cup in England, the national rugby union team of Georgia, nicknamed the ‘Lelos’, achieved their aim of automatically qualifying for the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan by defeating Namibia with a narrow margin of 17-16. Due to such a feat, their Kiwi head coach Milton Haig demanded that his boys competed in an expanded ‘Seven Nations’. The same request was made by Romania’s head coach, whose team, while failing to gain automatic qualification, were nonetheless competitive in their pool. Arguments were made in terms of competitive opportunities: upcoming nations would be given the chance to compete with the ‘big boys’ of Europe on a regular basis. At the same time, such opportunities would generate revenues and interest to sustain and further expand the game into parts of the world that have weaker ties to the game.
The arguments for inclusion far outweigh the arguments against, and Georgia’s case further strengthens the former. Rugby in Georgia has gained tremendous popularity in recent years, demonstrated by attendances for their home games in Tbilisi in the second tier European Nations Cup. These range from 15,000 to 60,000, particularly for matches against their old rivals Russia. This is impressive for a country with a population of less than four million. Compare that to Italy during their first years in the Six Nations, when there were more away fans than Italian fans in Rome.
Additionally, the majority of the Georgian team already plays in top-level competitions across Europe, especially in France’s Top 14 – where having at least one Georgian forward is a must. Closer to home, Glasgow Warriors have 35-cap hooker Shalva Mamukashvili amongst their ranks.
On the development side, Georgia is improving their U18 squad – who made it to the final in last year’s elite division of European competitions – while their U20s were also champions in the Tier 2 World Rugby Trophy held in Portugal.
Inclusion would provide a much-needed boost to an economy heavily affected by the war with Russia in 2008, particularly in terms of tourism.
With regard to Romania, it was in the 1980s that Communist Romania was considered the sixth nation of the Six Nations – instead of Italy – due to victories against Scotland and Wales. Such a decision would help accelerate their attempt to recover those glory days.
One of the proposed solutions for inclusion is to have a promotion or relegation playoff system, where the wooden spooner would have to play a game against the champion of the second tier for a shot at the top table. However, one could argue this would be counter-productive as it would be detrimental to teams such as Italy and Scotland: imagine a northern hemisphere tournament without Scotland. At the same time, teams like Georgia might not even get a chance to compete if the bottom-ranked team of that year manages to secure their place. Thereby, the only way that we could ever see the likes of Romania or Georgia is through an expansion of the existing tournament similar to the inclusion of Argentina in the southern hemisphere’s Tri-Nations, now known as the Rugby Championship. Hopefully, this would also allow other teams, such as Spain and Russia, to have a go, leading to a rugby equivalent of football’s Euros.
If only the people running the Six Nations could open their eyes.
Image courtesy of Fire_Eyes.