Discussions planned on Six Nations expansion and relegation

Ireland celebrate after winning the Grand Slam  at Twickenham, but the Six Nations may go further afield. Photograph:PA
Ireland celebrate after winning the Grand Slam at Twickenham, but the Six Nations may go further afield. Photograph:PA
0
Have your say

Do you ever ask yourself what the future of rugby might look like? It’s a tricky one to answer but the obvious thing to point out is that it will almost certainly be markedly different from today’s game.

I only ask because a sub-committee of the Six Nations council is being set up to review the Championship. It will report by the end of the year and we understand that absolutely nothing is off limits.

The possibility of expanding the Six Nations will be discussed and Georgia is just one of a number of possibilities, with South Africa, Japan and, of course, the promised land of the USA all in the mix. Everyone knows the financial rewards at the end of that particular rainbow, even if no one knows quite where the rainbow ends.

Japan might be a stretch but there are two good reasons for South Africa to look north: two of its professional teams already do so; the Cheetahs and the Kings play in the Guinness Pro14. Europe is the wealthiest rugby centre in the world and the time zones are infinitely more friendly for South Africa than those in Sydney, Wellington and Buenos Aires; something we will return to.

While the financial imperatives are there, the problems of expansion look almost insurmountable. The club owners in England and France are already grumbling about the time their players spend with the national squads and instigating a “Seven Nations” would extend the Championship from 15 to 20 matches and from five to seven weekends. It is a brave man who volunteers to give Toulon’s Mourad Boudjellal or Bruce Craig of Bath the news.

There has been a quiet rumbling in favour of Georgia joining the Six Nations at the expense of Italy who have won one Championship match in the past five years. But there is no guarantee that Georgia would be markedly better. Furthermore Rome is a brilliant place to visit and a lot closer than Tbilisi.

It is worth underlining because the travelling support is what gives the Six Nations its unique atmosphere. A bunch of French fans adopted Scotland this season, attending every game. Why? I asked them in Rome. Why not? came the answer.

The secondary tier Rugby Europe Championship (formally the European Nations Cup) involves the six next best nations on the continent and here they are in this season’s final standings: Georgia, Romania, Spain, Russia, Belgium, Germany.

Georgia have won the tournament in seven of the last eight years but instead of any automatic relegation and promotion or promise of a play-off against the Six Nations losers, it has been suggested that the winner could get a game against the champions instead!

That would certainly help fill Georgia’s coffers, presuming there was revenue sharing, but it is hardly going to satisfy the ambitious second-tier teams. Promotion already exists between the Rugby Championship and the third tier Rugby European Trophy whose winners Portugal are playing off against bottom-placed Germany for a place in next season’s Championship.

If World Rugby formalises the Rugby Europe Championship as the official Six Nations “B Championship” then they will have started the clock ticking on promotion and relegation, which is a dangerous precedent.

While everyone wants to promote sporting excellence, 100-plus years of history is surely worth protecting. The Six Nations is a cultural as well as a sporting occasion and holding the tournament without one of the home nations or France would mark one break with tradition that no one wants to see.

In the longer term a better candidate for Six Nations admission may not be Georgia but Spain or South Africa, both of whom would add sponsorship and varying degrees of excellence.

There is an argument that the globe should be split by time zones. The Americas would be one zone and the Americas Rugby Championship already exists with the following nations in the order they finished: USA, Argentina XV, Uruguay, Canada, Brazil, Chile.

Europe would tie up with Africa, meaning South Africa could join the Six Nations but also opening up the possibility that the winners of a pan-African competition, Kenya, Namibia, Morocco, would play off against the Rugby European Champions every year.

Which would leave a Far East time zone which includes another six leading nations: New Zealand, Australia, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and Japan.

The final thing to make all of this work is revenue-sharing because unless the wealthier European nations make some sort of contribution to their southern rivals the last South African player standing is scheduled to land somewhere on the south coast of France in about 18 months’ time.