The Six Nations is undoubtedly the highlight of the rugby calendar for those in the northern hemisphere, but discussions around restructuring the competition have come to the fore in recent years. This relates to a possible relegation/promotion system being introduced in the championship, which may be seen as an indirect way of questioning Italy’s position in the competition.
One must remember that the rugby scene in Europe is not confined to the countries of the Six Nations, but is also prevalent in countries such as Georgia, Romania, and Russia – all of whom have appeared at world cups. Following many poor results and performances by Italy in the Six Nations, there is an argument that other nations should be given a chance to compete with rugby’s heavyweights.
Italy first joined the championship in 2000, officially expanding the former Five Nations Rugby Championship to six. Italy’s addition started with a bang as they defeated Scotland in their first game in the championship at home. However, such success has rarely been repeated by the Italians in recent years. Italy has failed to win a game in the competition since 2015, when they beat Scotland 22-19.
Following heavy defeats in every match in this year’s series, Italy is on a losing streak of more than 30 games in the Six Nations. The 2019 World Cup was Italy’s most recent victory in a test match, when they beat Canada 48-7 in the group stage of the RWC. Canada was one of the lowest-ranked sides in the World Cup, and an Italian victory was expected by many against the minnows.
It may come as no surprise that many rugby commentators and pundits are now questioning Italy’s place and stature in the competition. Italy has become the flogging horse of the Six Nations and they have been stuck in a downward spiral for years with little indication of things improving for the nation. Italy’s points difference in this year’s championship was -184 with the team not claiming a single point on the table. Italy’s narrowest defeat was against England, but they still fell to a 23 point defeat at Twickenham.
It is evident something must change; nobody wants to see a team on a losing streak that spans six years. The club scene is also struggling in Italy, with Treviso and Zebre often suffering heavy defeats in both the Pro14 and in the European competition.
While rugby in Italy will always struggle against soccer, steps can be taken to revitalise the national team, the Six Nations Rugby Championship, and rugby in Europe. The teams in the Rugby Europe Championship (known as the European Nations Cup from 2000-2016), have been making breakthroughs in the rugby world for some time, particularly Georgia who have appeared in the last five world cups.
As of the 15th of March 2021, Georgia is ranked 12th in the world, with Italy down in 15th. While rankings are not always a good indicator, Georgia has consistently ranked above Italy in recent rankings published by World Rugby. Georgia is the most successful nation in the Rugby Europe Championship, having topped the table every year since 2011, with 2016/17 the only exception, when they came second.
When assessing Georgia’s success at the European level and its success in qualifying for consecutive world cups, they cannot be ignored and should be rewarded. World Rugby and Six Nation officials should enter into discussions about expanding the competition to include seven nations, or more preferably, a relegation and promotion system.
The workings of this system would be simple: the winner of the Rugby Europe Championship would face the last-place finishers of the Six Nations. In the event where a team from the Rugby Europe Championship, like Georgia or Romania, win the play-off, they would be promoted to the Six Nations with their opponents being relegated. Conversely, no promotion or relegation would occur if the Six Nations side won the play-off match.
Some rugby fans may argue that this would create a yo-yo effect of teams constantly being promoted and relegated each year. While this may be true, it would still add another layer to international rugby in Europe that is currently lacking. Additionally, it would help develop rugby’s status across Eastern Europe, in countries such as Russia, Romania, and Georgia - the three main competitors of the Rugby Europe Championship.
While many may see a relegation system as unfair to Italy, the championship cannot continue in its current form where Italy is completely disregarded. We know rugby can work and grow in Italy; one just has to look at the Italian women’s rugby team who have made massive strides in recent years. This team has beaten Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and France in the past three years, which seemed unthinkable only five or six years ago.
Italy can flourish in international competition, but this development has not been replicated by the men’s team who have been in a continuous rot for over six years. Perhaps the prospect of relegation from the men’s Six Nations may panic Italy, but it should serve as an incentive for the team to look internally at what has gone wrong and how the team could improve to avoid dropping into the second-tier of European rugby.
It should also be said that there is no guarantee that Italy would be in constant relegation/promotion play-offs if such a system were to be implemented. Rugby can be a strange sport at times and we could as well see Ireland play-off against Georgia/Romania/Russia to save their spot in the competition. However, it is clear that reform is needed in the championship; it would benefit rugby as a whole in Europe and help develop ‘B-Tier’ rugby nations across the continent.
While Georgia would be the obvious choice to replace Italy in the championship due to their domination in the Rugby Championship, both Romania and Russia have also been knocking on the door for some time. Another nation should be given the opportunity to play regularly against top-tier competition.