Is there scope for Six Nations expansion to allow other European nations field teams in European rugby’s top competition? Stephen O’Connor discusses.
Rugby union has proved to be one of the world’s most conservative sports, ever since the day William Webb Ellis picked up a football and decided to run with it under his arm. In Ireland, we have proof that rugby was a minority sport played by a small population, particularly by the middle-to-upper classes.
In recent times, mostly thanks to the success of the provinces and the national team over the last decade-and-a-half, rugby has become one of the biggest sports in this country, with clubs springing up in non-traditional rugby strongholds such as Corca Dhuibhne in Kerry and Connemara in Galway.
However, rugby union has not seen such an expansion on a European scale. It cannot be compared to its old cousin, association football, in the amount of nations competing in the sport at the highest level. But this simply down to the conservativeness of the European rugby powerhouses, instead of people simply not being interested in the sport.
The RBS Six Nations is the de facto European Cup. Six countries compete in it. Compare that with the 54 countries that are affiliated with UEFA, and have the ability to qualify directly to football’s European Championship equivalent – The Euros.
It was once the Four Nations – England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, until France made it five in 1910. Italy’s accession to competition in 2000 made the competition what it is today.
The strides that Italian rugby has made over the intervening years is ample proof that when given a chance to compete with the big boys, smaller rugby nations can grow from strength to strength.
May it be possible to add a seventh or even an eighth nation to the competition? Or maybe have a promotion/relegation system in place between the Six Nations and the second-tier European Nations Cup, where a play-off would take place between the team that finished bottom of the Six Nations and the team that won the Nations Cup?
Who are the contenders for promotion? The European Nations Cup is made up of seven, with promotion and relegation in existence between each tier. The competition takes two years to complete with Georgia, Germany, Portugal, Romania, Russia and Spain making up Division 1A for the 2014-2016 championship.
Georgia are the highest-ranked team (15th) in Division 1A. The country has quite a lot of professional players, with most of them plying their trade in France’s top two divisions as front-row props. In Georgia, rugby union is said to be more popular than football, with attendances for the national team’s matches reaching up to 65,000, for a match against Russia in Tblisi.
Although there would be logistical difficulties in reaching Tblisi for supporters on this side of Europe, the Georgians have shown that they might have the ability to compete with the bigger rugby nations.
In the recent test international against Ireland in the Aviva Stadium in November, Georgia managed to contain us for a large chunk of the game before our experience began to pay off and Ireland ran away with the game.
The potential is there for this rugby-mad nation to be given a bigger chance to express their talents on the world stage.
Just behind Georgia in the World Rugby rankings are Romania (16th). Romania have a very strong tradition in rugby union. It was the most popular team sport in the country during the communist era, with calls from many to add Romania to what was then the Five Nations before Italy joined.
Interest in rugby fell steeply following the fall of communism but the tradition of the game managed to survive.
The national team has consistently played test games against the bigger nations in recent times, while they also have a combined club side, made out of the top professionals based in Romania, Bucuresti Wolves, who compete in the European Challenge Cup under the stewardship of Welshman Lynn Howells.
Howells, who also coaches the national side, is a strong advocate for a promotion/relegation system to be introduced to the Six Nations, and it is clear that his sides are making strides in the right direction with every year that passes.
While Georgia and Romania are this writer’s favourites to have the ability to compete against the big six on a constant basis, the national teams of Germany, Portugal, Spain and Russia also have the potential to do bigger things on the European stage.
Russia, Spain and Portugal have all qualified for the Rugby World Cup in the past, while Russia have made a big impression on the sevens circuit.
Spain has played host to big French club matches with Bayonne and Biarritz playing games in the Basque country and Perpignan playing games in Catalunya. The potential is there; incentive to qualify for the bigger competition is all that is needed.
The onus is on World Rugby and the bigger European rugby nations to come together and discuss expansion.
Although it would create mismatches at the beginning, it would undoubtedly bring more colour and unpredictability to the Six Nations, and in turn, to future Rugby World Cups.
This writer wouldn’t go checking prices of flights to Bucharest and Tblisi just yet however, a hell of a lot of convincing must be done first.
Stephen O’Connor, Pundit Arena