If you have even a passing interest in rugby, then during the fallout from the Six Nations you will have heard mention of promotion and relegation. After Italy finished bottom of the pile by one of the most comprehensive margins in memory, their position in the Six Nations is looking more precarious than ever. The promotion/relegation debate has reached a crescendo.
Of course the irony is that the only people who are staunchly ignoring this talk, are the ones that matter: the Six Nations organisers. Georgia is widely regarded as the side that should be given a chance to replace Italy in the Six Nations, or at least have a chance at joining it, but a member of the Georgian Rugby Union recently confirmed that they had heard not even a peep from the organisers about the possibility of opening up this closed shop.
Bernard Lapasset, with the exquisite timing that only a veteran politician possesses, has thrown his hat in the relegation ring, just as he leaves his post as chairman of World Rugby – a good soundbite, but leave the details to someone else, eh Bernard?
It’s definitely nothing to do with him moving to lead Paris’ bid for the 2024 Olympic Games, and hoping to curry favour with the likes of Georgia and Romania for when the voting process begins. Definitely not.
But we digress. The thing is, the problems in Italian rugby run deeper than the national side. None of their teams are competitive at the moment, in any of the competitions they are in.
Consider this stat: since the ascension of Zebre and Treviso into the PRO12 in 2010, they have finished outside the bottom three just once, Treviso’s anomalous 2012/2013 campaign in which they came seventh. In that same season, as if to even things out, Zebre’s record read played 22, lost 22.
Recently, Zebre have failed to score a single point (that’s points in a match, not in the league) in their last three PRO12 matches. The combined scoreline against Ulster, Leinster and Edinburgh read 0-108.
And yet there is every chance that next season, Zebre will compete in the Champions Cup. They are currently 11th in the table, three points ahead of bottom-dwellers Treviso. Whichever of them finishes above the other will be guaranteed a spot at the expense of a team that finishes higher and, let’s be honest, would add much more value to the competition.
Since 1997-8 (6 pool stage games) in Champions Cup, 11/19 top seeds had an Italian team in pool. Tournament winners – 3/18.
— Russ Petty (@rpetty80) April 6, 2016
Since 1997/1998 (when six-game pool stages arrived), 11/19 top seeds in the knockout stages have had an Italian team in their pool. It is 11 years since an Italian side won more than one game in their European pool, and in five of those seasons, Italian sides finished winless in the tournament. Being brutally honest, they are little more than whipping boys.
Would there not be much more value in them having a stint in the Challenge Cup, a competition in which they would find themselves much more competitive? Would that not be much more valuable in terms of building confidence within the teams, by giving them more winnable – or at the very least competitive – games?
Alarmingly, the problem runs even deeper. Italy have more registered rugby players than Scotland and Wales, and some 25,000 more than Argentina. At the last count in 2011, there were 784 rugby clubs in Italy – more than Australia and New Zealand have each, and some three times the number in Wales. The player pool is there, so what exactly is going wrong?
A fascinating article in The Economist recently put forward the theory that the country’s young players weren’t skilful enough; that children were being brought up with size and power targets to hit, rather than focussing on skills.
This, though, is rhetoric that we hear in most countries other than New Zealand, and is largely held up as the reason why the All Blacks consistently produce so many more immensely skilful players than other countries. It is not a problem that is specific to Italy.
While the Six Nations remains a closed shop, Italy will have a place at European Rugby’s top table, when frankly, the evidence would suggest that it doesn’t deserve one.
Strong Italian sides – both at a national and domestic level – would be hugely beneficial to everyone, but under the current set-up, where their club sides are routinely hammered in Europe and their national team struggles to escape the battle for the Six Nations wooden spoon, how is anything going to get better?
Whether a side like Georgia would necessarily do any better in the Six Nations is beside the point this article is making, but unless Italian rugby sorts out the mess it finds itself in, the clamour for opening the Six Nations’ borders will only get louder. It is fair to say that Conor O’Shea has a rather tough job on his hands.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images