The Six Nations is an unfair tournament. Ireland have won this competition in-spite of this, having to defeat France, who were considered contenders, when England (also contenders) had to play an already vanquished Italy last year.
Playing the team at the bottom of the table on the last day of the Six Nations has an advantage, even away from home. This is why the competition is unfair towards the latter stages. At present there is no relegation from the tournament, and therefore no fear factor.
From a competitive fairness point of view, relegation is one possible improvement that should be considered, with the poorest team requiring qualification in some form or other for the following year’s tournament.
Let’s consider a traditionally lower placing team, say Italy for example, who on the last day must play a final game in what is effectively a dead rubber. With little or no wins and with no further sanction other than another loss, it would, in effect, mean that those Italian players wouldn’t show up. Some of them would be psychologically back at the club preparing for their respective domestic games.
This in turn would mean that the team would be devoid of any real impetus and would present a much easier form of opposition. That same Italian team at the beginning of the competition would be full of hope and opportunity that a fresh tournament provides and would be up for the fight. They are a very proud rugby nation, however their heart would simply not be in it by the end.
In 2015, Wales had to play Italy, who were a beaten docket on the final day, running in 61 points in the process. Ireland played Scotland, who were effectively safe at that stage, meaning England had the more difficult mercurial Les Blues and a huge cricket score to claw back because the other two teams were safe. Play out that final day scenario again with relegation in the mix and Wales would not have put 61 points on Italy and Ireland would have had a much tougher time against Scotland as the Scots would have fought tooth and nail to survive relegation.
This would have meant England would have required a much smaller points difference score to top the table and win the tournament. Relegation, if anything, serves to do one thing: keep all teams honest and right in the fight to the bitter end. Any bottom-placed team with no fear of relegation or financial loss will be an easier opposition.
So how can relegation be accommodated? There are two possible scenarios:
Option One: Run a similar tier-two competition in tandem, with the winners moving up to play the relegated Six Nations team in a double-headed home and away tie played out during the following autumn internationals break. The winner would subsequently secure a place in the Six Nations tournament the following year.
Option Two: A straight swap scenario. The tier-two team (Russia, Georgia etc.) moves up and the lowest placed team is relegated.
Both scenarios won’t increase the already under pressure international fixtures list and will also provide the following:
1. Opportunity for the other tier-two countries outside of the Six Nations group to compete in a top international tournament and play rugby that they would only experience during the World Cup every four years. It will serve to prepare them more and could narrow the competitive gap for some of these teams.
There is no fun watching 60-0 matches at the World Cup. It’s worked for Italy, and unless you live under a rock, look what inclusion to the to the Tri-Nations has done for Argentina, and subsequently to Ireland. Argentina have beaten Ireland before, but they were never double Six Nations winners on those occasions.
2. Increase the profile of rugby in these countries, for example the likes of Diego Maradonna supporting his country at the World Cup. This is a nation where only a few years ago only the middle and upper classes played rugby. He came from a poor neighbourhood with rugby being a rich man’s game.
Imagine a final day where Scotland and Italy must win their concluding game to avoid having to play a qualification tie, or worse elimination? They would be different gravy altogether. The Premier league has produced some absolute humdingers in similar circumstances down through the years.
Should one mess with the best international tournament in the world? Or should one strive for competitiveness?
The southern hemisphere teams are not afraid of change. In the end isn’t it their ability to embrace change and be dynamic in their approach to all things rugby that’s one of the major attributes which sets them apart from their northern hemisphere counterparts?
Diarmuid Ryan, Pundit Arena