Georgia’s continued success in the European Nations Cup and their wonderfully entertaining exploits at the 2015 World Cup have won fans all over the globe, but they will always struggle to take their team to the next level without meaningful games against tier one opposition.
Although the idea of relegation and promotion between the Six Nations and the European Nations Cup has been suggested as a potential solution by numerous pundits, the Six Nations Committee had poured cold water on the idea, stating it is not their responsibility to develop other nations.
There are also significant financial and logistical issues with introducing Georgia into the Six Nations, or even seeing them replace Italy.
What then are the alternatives? Here are some possible ideas for a way forward.
1. Include Georgia on the Autumn International Schedule
Ireland and Scotland have both done their bit for Georgia in recent years, sending ‘A’ sides to play in triangular tournaments in Tbilisi and beyond. However, one idea could be for the Six Nations teams to open a window to play Georgia in the Autumn International schedule.
Games could be played at alternative venues to attract crowds. After a huge crowd turned up to Manchester City’s Ethiad Stadium to see England’s World Cup dead rubber against Uruguay, why don’t England play Georgia up in the north at St James’ Park, Anfield or Old Trafford?
Similarly, the home nations and France could all play for smaller crowds in new locations, spreading the appeal of the game.
It would provide international coaches opportunities to look at fringe players against competitive opposition and it would give Georgia tougher challengers than they face currently. Potentially, it could also lead to some historical upsets for the Lelos.
Unfortunately, issues can be foreseen in player release: any clubs – particularly French clubs which have many Georgian players on their books – would not release players outside of the designated test window, so for any fixtures not part of the test window an arrangement would need to be agreed with the relevant clubs, World Rugby and the national governing bodies involved.
Georgia would not have the financial clout to broker a deal, but there could be a way for the parties to assist financially.
2. Invite a Georgian team into one of the domestic leagues
A pivotal moment in Italy’s development was when two places for Italian teams were opened up in the old Celtic league, in what is now the Pro12. Italy has poorly managed these sides, but a similar opportunity for a Georgian club or newly-formed regional franchise would really help to develop their player base.
Alternatively, this side could be invited into the lower leagues of the French or English systems and asked to fight its way to the top, although for geographical and logistical reasons it would make sense for Georgia to join the French leagues.
Of course, financial assistance would most likely be necessary at first, but Georgia deserves a chance to move towards being a tier one side.
Given the work SANZAAR has done to integrate both Argentina and Japan into their tournaments, it is time for the Six Nations teams to take on more responsibility, or once again the Northern Hemisphere will be playing catch-up.
3. Create a European Nations Cup Invitational Touring Side
Following in the footsteps of the British and Irish Lions, a new touring side made of the best players from all the teams in the tournament to play against tier one nations could provide players with the chances to test themselves against the best.
This is an idea that was trialled with the introduction of the Pacific Islanders team, a side made up of the best players from Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. The Pacific Islanders were prominent between 2004 and 2008, playing almost all the tier one sides home and away.
It was intended that the side would generate significant financial income for the three nations involved, however Samoa left the alliance in 2009 after they felt the concept had failed to do this.
Yet the creation of a combined European Nations Cup side could generate interest in the sport across continental Europe and bring in fans from across the globe to watch the side play.
It would enable the team to have the combined economic power of all the nations involved and provide a side that could potentially compete with tier one nations. This combined side could even play the British and Irish Lions in warm-up games for their quadrennial tours.
These are just a few suggestions of how Georgia and other sides could be further integrated into the world of tier one rugby, but ultimately something will need to change soon as Georgia are constantly playing at a standard beyond their current rivals. It’s an exclusive table at the top of world rugby, but it’s time for an extra place to be provided for the Lelos.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena
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