Relegation? Expansion? How Should The Six Nations Deal With Italy's Issues?

The Azzurri haven't won a game in five years, leading many to suggest a change of format
07:00, 26 Jan 2020

Can you feel it yet? That murmur in the air? The gradual excitement slowly building towards fever pitch next weekend? Following on from a compelling 2019 Rugby World Cup, this year’s Six Nations Championship is as hotly anticipated as any in recent memory.

But there is continued speculation as to how the Six Nations could be altered in future in the wake of Italy’s continued struggles coupled with the progression of other rugby forces around the world. So could there be more countries involved? Or are there other ways to give the much-loved competition a reboot?

With 98 games played and just 12 won since their arrival at the turn of the millennium, Italy are now regular cause for debate regarding a change to the tournament. With their last Six Nations win coming as far back as 2015, talk of revolution in the shape of the Georgians is a weekly discourse during the tournament.

Georgia play in the Rugby Europe International Championships (REIC), essentially the second-tier Six Nations, against the likes of Romania, Spain and Portugal, and have won 10 of the last 12 tournaments. Most famously recognised as scrummaging specialists - turning the set-piece into an art of broad-shouldered 120kg men clumped together in the middle of the field – they have caught the public’s attention with impressive November Internationals and Rugby World Cup performances.

As with the Premiership, talk of relegation and promotion in a Six Nations context divides public opinion, with many greatly opposed to the savaging of tradition. ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ right? There are just as many voices, however, calling for the Georgians’ inclusion, having become tired of the Azzurri’s losing streak.

One such advocate regularly found atop his soapbox is 2003 Rugby World Cup-winning coach Sir Clive Woodward.

“The organisers have let Italy and the competition down badly by not introducing relegation play-offs long ago,” Woodward wrote in the Daily Mail in 2017.

Two years later, Woodward added: “For [Italy’s] own sake, there should be a one-off play-off game. Italy play this at home and if they can't beat Georgia, Russia, Romania, Spain — or whoever is next cab off the rank — in a one-off game in Rome then they should be relegated.”

Woodward’s suggestion of a play-off game against the REIC champions could save the tournament the severe financial casualty of losing nations that boast colossal viewing numbers - primarily England and France - should they suffer a catastrophic campaign and find themselves at the bottom of the table. Countries that ultimately remain far superior to the side vying for promotion arguably need to be retained.

Woodward is not the only England head coach to publicly back consideration of tournament evolution. In 2019 current Red Rose boss Eddie Jones was asked his opinion on promotion/relegation.

“The organisers talk about the Six Nations being the best rugby competition in the world and it probably is close to it,” Jones told the BBC. “But to improve it you’ve got to find a way of making sure you’ve got the six best teams in Europe always playing in it. If that involves relegation, then it’s something that should be looked at very closely.”

But why stop there? Why continue adding one nation at a time in an archaic one-in-shut-the-gate routine?

During the 2019 Rugby World Cup, Japan won the rugby public’s hearts with displays of ruthlessly efficient, pro-attacking rugby. The Brave Blossoms played with a pace and dynamism many viewers have been crying out for in an age of three-minute scrum resets and 10-second box-kick routines. Subsequent cries for their inclusion in an annual spectacle sprouted up overnight, with parties from the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship playing a game of tug-of-war over the new kids on the block.

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An ambitious and revolutionary step for the Six Nations would be to adopt a group format, much like the Pro14. Originally a Celtic league that has since seen the addition of two Italian and two South African sides, the Pro14 has thrived since expanding from 12 teams to 14 and adopting a group format in 2017.

While it took some getting used to, the group stages have only made the Pro14 more interesting, whilst also adding the oh-so valuable access to the rugby-mad South African broadcast market.

Is there room for an eight-team group version of the Six Nations with one grand finale? With Georgia and one of Japan or another REIC team joining the tournament? If we’re honest, it’s unlikely. 

However, between the vastly-increased TV audiences that would spike broadcast revenue and the promise of developing more ‘Tier One’ nations, the debate about a group-stage expansion of the Six Nations is not about to go away.

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