Closed Shop; Six Nations Championship status quo unjustifiable

Closed shop - Six Nations Championship
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With both the Six Nations Championship wrapped up and the Rugby Europe Championship 2021 on pause until the summer, the status quo that is the 6 Nation’s closed shop is the question that won’t go away.

There has been a repeated failure by one of the championship partners. With Italy continually living down to original expectations, and conversely Georgia continuing their European dominance – how long can the status quo be justified?

Ships in the night – Italy and Georgia rugby by comparison

  • Six consecutive Wooden Spoons
  • 30 defeats in a row
  • 2021 points difference of minus 184.

These are the simple facts that demonstrate; regardless of the annual talk of Italy improving or needing time to develop, that rugby nation has done nothing near enough to earn/retain their spot at Europe’s top table.

In contrast, Georgia’s record in the Rugby Europe Championship is one of now inevitable dominance:

  • 19 wins in a row
  • Three [soon to be four] consecutive Rugby Europe Grand Slams
  • Georgia’s last defeat was over four years ago, losing by a single point to Romania (in REC competition).

As we saw last week, Georgia dispatched Romania again despite having 14 men for twenty minutes. They continue to excel within their current bracket – one that isn’t a glass ceiling, it is a brick wall!

At this stage, half-hearted attempts to defend the status quo are trotted out. Georgia would be no match for the top tier nations, as the Autumn Nations Cup showed. Well notwithstanding the fact that Georgia had zero preparation time, Italy’s dire performances mean it would be impossible for Georgia to do any worse than Italy. We don’t know what could happen if Georgia got the regular tier 1 exposure that is denied to them so that argument goes in the bin.

But surely this shouldn’t be decided over one game? Well luckily, it wouldn’t be. Just like the play-offs between the Rugby Europe Championship and Trophy, it’s decided over six games. If you are bottom after the five league games, why shouldn’t you earn your spot next year? The question is not will Georgia compete against France and England but should they be given the opportunity to do so? The answer is yes.

Italy’s Six Nations Championship place held protecting their Investment

Once the disingenuous arguments are dealt with, we eventually get to the crux of the matter. Money.

Now, no one should have any issue with financial considerations being part (or the major part) of the decision-making, especially post Covid. Provided people are honest enough to state this is the concern, you can discuss it. However, the recent CVC deal which sees Italy pick up an extra £30 million has further tilted the scales in their favour versus Europe’s second-tier. Plus, with South Africa joining the PRO 14/16, Italy’s finances should be secure.

With all this financial advantage that Italy possesses over a potential challenger, the already weak arguments against them being forced to earn their spot are now paper-thin.

A simple solution is that a pot of money from each member of the Six Nations is put aside for a hypothetical promoted team, (£3 million each for the sake of argument). Should Italy win the playoff in November, the £18 million can be distributed to the current teams. Should Georgia pull the upset, then that prize money is immediately awarded to the Georgia Rugby Union [to support them in joining the Six Nations Championship the following spring]. Italy could still keep their Six Nations Championship stake.

To survive, would they have to restructure and retrench….. perhaps in a soon-to-be confirmed new format inclusive of ex-Super Rugby sides, perhaps they lose a Guinness Pro 14 Club (some would argue that two Pro 14 teams are already one too many for Italy).

What options are open to compensate Italy Rugby?

Certainly options which both stakeholders and Georgia rugby supporters would vote for. However, there is a way to put a structure in place that protects Italy whilst still giving other nations a chance to reach the top.

The other more interesting point is instead of focussing on the financial loss of Italy being at risk, the counterfactual should be explored. That question being: How much money is the game missing out on by stunting other nations and enforcing the Six Nation’s closed shop?

Look past Georgia for one minute. Russia is a nation of 144 million people, with aspirations to host the Rugby World Cup. How do we know that if the opportunity to play with Europe’s elite emerges, financial backers and commercial sponsors won’t also emerge?

Spain, despite their current struggles, is a nation at the heart of Western Europe and could grow to have the same commercial opportunities as Italy if they were given the shot. The fact is there would undoubtedly be an explosion in interest and exposure for the REC if it becomes a gateway to the Six Nations Championship. How much more money could find its way into the game?

Nobody knows and nobody will know until the game gives itself that chance.

Rugby Europe Championship 2021
Tornike Jalagonia of Georgia is tackled by Evgeny Elgin of Russia during the Rugby Europe Championship round 5 match at Mikheil Meskhi Stadium on February 7, 2021 in Tbilisi, Georgia. (Photo by Levan Verdzeuli/Getty Images)

Positive exhibit for Promotion – Portugal are perfect poster boys

To see how promotion works in a positive way, we only need to look at the recent emergence of Portugal as Rugby World Cup qualifying contenders. In 2016, Portugal got relegated after just one win in 10 games. For the next three seasons, they dominated the third tier and lost two playoff finals until June 2019, where they beat Germany to earn their way back to the second tier.

What did they learn in their time at the third level? They learnt to win. Portugal’s first season back was a completely different team and mindset as in 2020 they would beat Romania before a single point loss to Russia. This year, in a crucial Rugby World Cup qualification cycle, they were a minute from beating Romania before shocking Spain. Come July, they could finish second in the REC 2021 and be favourites to pick up the second automatic ticket to France 2023.

Now, already I know people will be talking about the financial disparities between the second tier and the Six Nations compared to tiers three and two. I accept that but as it is the Six Nations Championship who are creating that rigged system, they don’t get to use that argument in their own defence. The principal is sound, Portugal has shown it. Promotion and relegation work. It is to be included in the planned WXV, so it is an approved method from World Rugby.

Despite the desire of many to talk about something else, the question of the Six Nations Championship closed shop won’t be going away anytime soon. And for the good of the game, nor should it.

You can follow Edward on Twitter @HomelessEd3


“Main photo credit”
Embed from Getty Images