South Africa is not the answer: what to do with the Six Nations

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Rumours regarding Italy’s removal from the Six Nations have been around for a while. Over the last few weeks, these rumours seem to have picked up some steam. Media reports have suggested that talks are in place to replace Italy with current world champions, South Africa, in 2025.

These rumours have been put to bed by the organisers of the competition, after a statement was released claiming that “they are not entertaining any discussion nor developing any plans to add or replace any participating Union.”

While plans to replace Italy have fallen through, discussion of the idea has reminded the rugby world of a crucial point: Italian rugby has simply not improved as world rugby hoped it might. 

After joining the tournament in 2000, Italy have come sixth sixteen times and have accrued an average losing margin of 27.7 points per game. Their best performances came in 2007 and 2013 where they managed to come fourth.

The future for Italian rugby looks bleak. Their loss to England marks their 34th consecutive loss in the tournament and is their 99th loss in 112 games.

Something must change in the competition. Games against Italy often have the feeling of formality. Fans rarely want to watch their team play Italy and fantasy rugby players fill their teams with players from the nation playing The Azzurri that week.

Twenty-two years of playing in the Six Nations is surely enough to indicate a team’s ability to improve.

The time has finally come to make Italy earn their place

 Scotland, who have struggled in past competitions, have had a revival and are now genuine contenders. French rugby may have fallen at times during their involvement in the competition, but fans can always be sure that they will bounce back.

This has not been the case for Italy. Consistently bad performances reduce the level of competition.

The answer, however, is not the inclusion of South Africa.

Injecting the world champions into the competition would mean that every game matters more but drags the competition away from its tradition as a Northern hemisphere affair. 

Replacing Italy with South Africa is nothing but harmful for Italian rugby. The question of where Italy would fit should the Springboks join is yet to be answered. The result would likely be a relegation to the Rugby Europe Championship, a competition that offers little opportunity for growth.

The idea of expansion has also been suggested, adding South Africa as a seventh member of the tournament. Realistically, this would only mean another team beating Italy and would not solve the problem of one dull game a week. Arguably World Rugby’s greatest event, The Lions Tour, would be cheapened if fans can see South Africa play Northern hemisphere teams in competitive games every year.

The sixth spot in the competition should be used for the development of the game, and it is difficult for South Africa to develop much further. If an expansion or a substitution is to take place, it should involve a lower tier rugby nation, allowing new players to develop on the global stage.

The most likely contender to replace Italy from the pool of tier two nations is Georgia. Georgia has always been on the fringe of world rugby but now sits at thirteenth in the IRB rankings, one place above Italy. The inclusion of a different European nation would be hugely beneficial. If Georgia can prove themselves as Italy have failed to do, world rugby would be in a better position. 

The idea of promotion and relegation has been floated for a while, and the time has finally come to make Italy earn their place. Promotion and relegation would provide Italy with a greater incentive to improve and would make the competition more exciting at the lower end. Italy have been given their chance and unfortunately have not taken it. It may be time to change the Six Nations, and promotion/ relegation seems the way to go.

Image: Antonio Cinotti via flickr

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