It’s been 17 years since the Five Nations welcomed Italy into the fold and the northern hemisphere’s famous rugby tournament became the Six Nations.
Unchanged in 90 years, the contest that saw England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and France knocking lumps out of each other in the early springtime mud, took a progressive view of the sport and opened it’s doors to their Italian neighbours.
Nearly two decades on and for a whole generation of fans, it has always been the Six Nations. Contemplating a championship without the Azzurri is as strange a concept as the question of revising the famous competition again in order to welcome in a seventh nation.
Perhaps, however, that time has come. Should the Six Nations now become seven? As Italy have continued to find life difficult against the top tier rugby nations, noise from the eastern borders of Europe has been steadily growing in recent years.
Since their ratification and affiliation with World Rugby in 1992, Georgia has been slowly building as a rugby power. As popularity for the sport grows, so too does the talent pool and financial backing.
The former Soviet Union nation joined the European Rugby Championship, colloquially referred to as the Six Nations B, back in 2000 and since then, have won the title on no less than nine occasions.
As undisputed top dogs of the Tier 2 sides in Europe, much of Georgia’s international squad ply their trade in France, between the Top 14 and Pro D2 leagues.
There, Georgia’s current and future stars are learning and competing at the highest level, the result of which is their steady ascension in the world rugby rankings.
As high as eleventh last year and currently lying 12th, just behind Japan, calls have begun for the eastern nation to be ‘promoted’ to the Six Nations at the expense of Italy, who have slid to 14th in the current rankings.
Back in February, former South Africa and Italy coach Nick Mallet hit out at Six Nations chief executive John Feehan for denying Georgia’s claim for inclusion in the championship.
Since then there have been suggestions of a promotion/relegation format being introduced which would prove an opportunity for European Rugby Championship sides to step up to the Six Nations, at the expense of course, of the wooden spooners of that year.
This notion has been largely rejected and it seems that, for now at least, Georgia are left to bang on the glass ceiling they find themselves pressed against.
But is this fair? Should Georgia be a victim of their own success? Of course not. In the 53 years of their existence, they have grown from whipping boys to genuine threats and contenders.
Just as Italy were extended the opportunity to develop and improve against the top teams of Europe, shouldn’t Georgia be offered the same chance?
Much like the Six Nations was embraced back in 2000, is it wrong to believe a Seven Nations would be as easily adopted, both by fans, respective rugby unions and sponsors?
With calls for a compacted format being made by the RFU earlier this year, the idea of actually increasing the competition duration, as a result of Georgia’s inclusion, might well be a real hurdle for any expansion of the tournament.
Is this, however, a good enough reason to deny them their place in the top tier of European rugby? Surely not?
Ultimately, change is inevitable. The Six Nations is, after all, the third iteration of the famous Test series, following the original Home Nations and Five Nations Championships.
To resist a new call for change, when it would directly impact the development of another rugby union just does not seem fair or in the spirit of the game.
For now, Georgia can only watch through a locked door as their western neighbours do battle in front of upwards of one million fans each year.
For the young rugby nation it must seem like a real injustice that they too cannot compete on this stage, especially when they have proven their worth and right to be there.
As an ambitious rugby union, Georgia must believe that change is coming. They will be eventually be granted their place at the top table, as they should.
The only question is when.
Gary Brennan, Pundit Arena