“Enough is enough.” These were the words of ex-Wales captain Sam Warburton after France’s 50-10 demolition of Italy in the first round of this year’s Six Nations. Warburton was talking about how, in his opinion, Italy are simply not good enough for the tournament and that teams like Georgia should get a chance instead.
He outlines, albeit briefly, the idea that the team who finishes bottom of the Six Nations, typically Italy, should play the team that finishes top of the European Championship in a play-off at the end of both tournaments to decide who takes the coveted sixth spot at the next year’s Six Nations. This is so Georgia can play the big boys and get more experience, but also so Italy can finally win again.
It has been 27 Six Nations games now without a win for the Azzurri, so maybe a step down is what they need to build up morale. However, although in principle I do very much like the direction that this idea by Warburton is heading, I do have two problems with it. One, we should not single out the Italians, and two, he doesn’t go far enough.
Firstly, yes, the Italians haven’t been the greatest rugby team on earth. However, that doesn’t mean that, because of their shortcomings, we should restructure international rugby. They haven’t won in a while and in most games, no matter who the opposition is, Italy do look thoroughly outclassed.
But they are improving. In the first round they came up against a monstrously brilliant French side that will probably win the Six Nations, and I do not believe the score line was fair. Paolo Gabrisi, the young Italian fly-half played brilliantly, and when they got going the Italians actually went toe-to-toe with the current best team in the world. The same can be said of their performance against England last weekend.
Yes, of course, they have problems. Whenever the field was broken (which happened a fair few times with missed tackles) they couldn’t cope or regroup. But they didn’t look so far out of their depth that they should be expelled from the competition. Why give them the boot when they are just starting to show signs of genuine progression? There are very valid reasons for expanding the Six Nations and European rugby, but Italy’s losses are not one.
We should want to expand and reform because we want rugby to grow, especially in Europe, and because it wants to expand. There are always your rugby purists that want things to remain the same and see the same games every year in the name of tradition.
However, I would implore those people to get off their high horse and see that rugby can be so much more fun and exciting with greater risk and diversity involved. The other challenge comes with convincing the unions to change and support a new system, which is never easy.
I am suggesting a complete reform of the current European rugby calendar. My idea consists of two-year windows in which (in both of these years) a different format of European rugby is played out. In one year, you would have the Six Nations and the European Championship and so on underneath it without promotion or relegation from the Six Nations. But the other year you would have a 12-team, two-pool European tournament.
The Six Nations of the previous year would be met by the six top teams from the prior European Championship and drawn into two pools. The draw would be seeded via World Rugby rankings to ensure fairness. Each team would play every other team in the pool totalling five games each just like the Six Nations, and then the top three teams in both groups qualify for the next year’s Six Nations and the bottom three from both will compete in the next year’s European Championship.
To me, this would increase risk and excitement and put more on the line for the traditional Six Nations teams, whilst also bettering the tier two teams and giving them a chance to genuinely develop and expand the game in their countries. I know it is radical and would have lots of opposition, but I believe it is necessary for the health and future of international rugby.
Image: David Molloy via Creative Commons