So the Six Nations tournament is in full swing. This always gets me thinking about rugby, and in particular, the competition’s format. Rugby aficionados might find what I am going to say controversial, while nobody else will give much of a shit. But as a lifelong fan, I want to make my feelings heard. And before we go any further no, this blog isn’t about the customary capitulation of the Wales team.
You see, I don’t think the Six Nations should be six nations. Not any more. Frankly, Italy (wooden spoon winners in two of the past three seasons and odds on for a hat-trick) are not strong enough to contest and do themselves no favours by continuing to slug it out with the big boys of European rugby. From the 85 games they’d played up to the start of the current championship, they’d lost 72 and their overall points difference stood at an alarming -1553. That’s more than twice as many as the second worst team, Scotland.
It’s nothing personal. I admire the way Italy stick to their guns, often in the face of overwhelming odds. They are a strong, powerful team, and have produced a couple of top players. But this season really should spell the end of their involvement in the Six Nations tournament. Who needs it? They were effectively out of the reckoning after just two games, having been on the end of two home thrashings at the hands of Wales and Ireland (7-33 and 10-63 respectively). They usually have one good game a year, and that came last week at Twickers. They gave England a scare, more through clever exploitation of the rules than any real skill, but still ended up losing by double digits. All the evidence suggests that Italy are getting worse at this rugby lark, not better. It could be time to go. And you know what? They can take France with them.
Controversial? Let me explain…
At several points in it’s long history (the first comparable tournament was played way back in 1883) the Six Nations was known as the Home Nations, and consisted of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Then in came the French and it became the Five Nations. Then Italy made it six. Where’s it going to end? Shall we just invite every rugby-playing nation in Europe and call it the 17 Nations? Of course not, that would be impractical. But then you have to wonder why Italy deserve a place. Georgia are actually above them in the world rankings and Romania and Russia aren’t far behind.
I want a return to the old days. But not because I’m some Neanderthal racist who hates Italians and Frenchies. Nope, I have a plan. The tournament should return to its roots, but I think we should do it differently this time. I want the home nations to play every other home nation twice a season, for a total of six games. And lets mix up the draw each year, pulling the fixtures at random, instead of having the format and fixtures set in stone. That gets boring. The draw for the next tournament can be made at the end of the previous one to give fans time to make arrangements, and thereby amping up the drama even more. Put it on live TV, make a spectacle out of it like the FA Cup draw.
Let’s be honest, nobody really likes playing the French. Not because anyone is afraid of them (though they do have a nasty habit of running in good tries), but because they bring nothing to the tournament, especially the way the team is at the moment. They currently stand at 8th in the latest World Rugby rankings, lower than any of the home nations, and haven’t been serious contenders for years. They were fortunate to beat Italy last season. If they’d lost, they would have suffered a second whitewash in four years. Not good enough, sorry.
There’s long been talk of introducing a two-tier system into the Six Nations, with promotion and relegation. If that ever happened, Italy would undoubtedly be the first team relegated. And there’s a decent chance France could follow. I suggest we take the initiative and cull them now, then put them in a separate European group with two of Georgia, Romania and Russia. Maybe even Spain, Germany or Portugal. All are emerging nations ranked in the world top 25. Playing each other (along with France and Italy) on a regular basis would improve their game immeasurably, which can only be good for the sport. The European group of four (even five or six would be manageable as these teams play less games per year than the elite) can also play each home and away, then face the winners of the British group in a grand final every year at a neutral venue. Obviously France would dominate for the first couple of years, but I the other teams would soon catch up with them.
There, sorted. Think about it. This proposed new format would benefit everyone involved. The British teams would only have to play one (or two, if they get to the grand final) more games a season, there would be more opportunity for sponsors and TV revenue, the fans would get more of what they really want (Wales v Scotland, England v Anybody), the smaller rugby-playing nations would have a framework and a chance to develop, and there would be a huge showpiece final every year to rival the (football) European Championship.
Who’s with me?