With Argentina just about to enter their third Rugby Championship, Mark Coughlan argues it's about time we in the Northern Hemisphere considered a more meritocratic Six Nations
REMEMBER LIFE before the 2007 World Cup? It was a simpler, less complex time, when the Six Nations teams dominated the northern hemisphere and the power triumvirate of New Zealand, Australia and South Africa bestrode the game below the equator. Then Argentina up and under-ed their way past France and into a semi-final, Ireland scraped past Georgia and Fiji saw off Wales in an epic encounter for the neutral.
Fast-forward seven years and that could be pinpointed as the moment everything changed and the minnows scrapped their way onto the top table, even if they were just feeding off the scraps.
Only that’s what we hoped in an idealistic rugby utopia, yet nothing has really changed, has it? Of course, we all stood by and applauded when the Tri-Nations became the Rugby Championship in opening its doors to Los Pumas, and when New Zealand confirmed their first-ever Test visit to Samoan soil – admittedly fter much chiding – we sat back at a job well done at our inclusive nature.
But what about closer to home? Well, five became six back in 2000. Italy has undoubtedly helped the tournament grow and Rome is now a much loved destination for the fans, but I don’t think we should stop there. Of course I’m not after a Ten Nations but relegation and promotion in the Six Nations has to be considered.
There are issues, of course – there always are – with the European Nations Cup (the Six Nations second division to you and I) taking place over two seasons instead of one, and of course the federations that control the home nations are hardly going to be tripping over themselves to promote it, but surely we should be moving mountains to give teams a shot at the top table.
Take Georgia, for example. A side growing in stature year on year. They lie less than a point behind Italy in the IRB rankings and Mamuka Gorgodze was named the best foreigner in the Top 14 in 2011, while seven of their current squad play in the same league. Indeed the Georgians have now topped the second-tier tournament for six of the last seven years, and completed another ‘Grand Slam’ this season.
Would anyone begrudge the Georgians a two-legged play-off against an Italian side that lost every game they played in this year’s Six Nations, or are we accepting a glass ceiling for a ‘developing nations’ is meritocratic. If Italy beat Georgia, then nobody can complain, but if the Georgians can prove they belong in the top tier, why not give them a season to prove it? Italy spend a year playing against smaller nations and – if they’re good enough – get their chance to earn their place back in the top tier next time out. Just imagine the excitement surrounding a Six Nations play-off.
Or let’s take it up a notch, and say if you are handed the wooden spoon three times on the trot, you enter a play-off against the team with the most points over the past three European Nations Cups. Everyone will have an idea of how to make it fair, I’m sure, but the point remains – ring-fencing the Six Nations is never going to help the smaller European nations develop.
One last point, why can’t the home nations head east on their summer tours for a change? Yes, the odd venture to Argentina and USA is great for marketing purposes, and of course you want a crack at a New Zealand or an Australia on their own turf, but should we find room in the calendar for England, Ireland, Wales or Scotland to head to Eastern Europe, and with reduced travel, play more than one side. Russia, Germany, Romania, Spain and the aforementioned Georgians are all desperate to play the big boys – giving them a shot once every four years just isn’t good enough.