If, a couple of weekends ago, you found yourself taking in 80 minutes of enthralling European International rugby played in front of a fervent capacity crowd, you could have been watching any one of four matches. That’s right, four. My maths may not be past GSCE standard, but I can at least count well into double figures. Of course, France’s capitulation at the hands of the Welsh was one such game, as was Scotland’s last-gasp win against the Italians. England’s underpant-ruiningly tense encounter with the Irish was arguably the pick of the bunch, but where was this mystery fourth fixture?
It was well away from the prying eyes of the BBC cameras, and the vast majority of English speaking journalists, in the National Stadium in Tsibili. It was here that Georgia put on a dominant physical display to defeat fierce rivals Russia, 36–10. In front of 54,127 people. To put that into context, Ireland’s magnificent Aviva Stadium holds a capacity of 51,700, which means that more people bought tickets to watch a battle between two ‘Tier 3’ Nations than a contest between two of Europe’s elite.
After Scotland’s loss against England there was plenty of hysteria from the media, with some saying they should be ‘dropped’ from the Six Nations. I didn’t really buy into that hyperbole, but it did – along with the above – get me thinking: why should any of the Six Nations sides have an automatic right to play in the top tier?
Is it because the likes of lowly Georgia would automatically take a hammering from the established big boys? In the 2011 World Cup Scotland squeaked past Georgia and Romania by 9 and 10 points respectively (they were in fact trailing in the latter fixture until late on), whilst Ireland could only win by 4 against the Georgians in 2007, who also pushed the Italians close in the same tournament.
England may have put a few points on both of the Eastern European sides in the last European tournament, but when you consider that Italy conceded an average of 45 points during the first couple of seasons of the Six Nations, it seems to me that these ‘Tier 3’ sides wouldn’t necessarily be the cannon-fodder everyone expects.
Perhaps facilities may have something to do with it? Doubtful, considering that Georgia’s national stadium holds 55,000 and the pitch looked in better nick than the turfs on display at Murrayfield, Stade de France and the Millennium Stadium. Romania’s most recent match, against Belgium, was played in their stadium in Cruj, a state of the art ground – opened in 2011 – that has been granted category 4 (a.k.a. elite) status by UEFA, allowing it to hold Champions League games and Euro Internationals. My guess is that it’s good enough to hold a rugby match.
What could it possibly be, then, that is holding back at least one, if not two or three, potentially serious players on the world stage? The correct answer is the obvious one – money. To an extent, I understand concerns from the Italian, French and Home Nation Unions that a drop out of the elite European International competition would lead to a cataclysmic slump in profits and have wide ranging affects on the game right down to grass roots.
That would certainly be the case if a relegation system between tiers was introduced immediately, but we are getting to a point now where the verbal hot air being spouted about ‘expanding the game’ into a truly global sport is becoming a little tiresome without any meaningful action being taken. I accept that there are huge profits to be made by the Unions from merchandise, ticket sales and broadcasting rights, but what gives the current Six Nations group the exclusive right to this, especially seeing as relegation and promotion already exist between divisions in the Six Nations ‘B’ tournament?
I would propose a 5 point plan:
1. Restructure European International Rugby
After the Six Nations, the second-tier ‘European Nations Cup’ is in a bit of an odd format – with there being two first divisions (each of six teams), four second divisions and one third division. Make it a simple ladder, from the Six Nations down to Division 7, based on ranking initially so that there is a clear ladder to the top.
2. Implement a playoff-based Promotion/Relegation system
The loser of one division would player the winner of the division below home and away, with the aggregate score deciding whether or not they will ‘swap places’. The advantage of this is that it will not allow sides to be promoted until it is certain they will be competitive in the higher division and, for the rich boys club in the Six Nations, creates a safety net for their side to justify why they should remain in the top league, should they finish bottom.
It also allows smaller sides to host larger teams in real, meaningful matches which can only provide a boost to rugby interest across the continent. The timing of playoff fixtures would need fine-tuning – perhaps at the start of the June international window, or straight after the Six Nations if the rest weekends were removed – but it would be the fairest and least controversial way of establishing a true European ladder.
3. Encourage Europe-wide broadcasting of the ‘Division 1’ games
A sure fire way to get the ball rolling with regards to continent-wide interest will be to encourage channels such as BT Sport to invest in the tournament in return for broadcast rights. Such rights would be obtained for pocket change in comparison for the amount that they have shelled out for the Premier League and Champions League, but would come with the twist that they could hit gold if one of the ‘big teams’ drops down, boosting viewing figures and pumping up the broadcasting value to well beyond what they paid for it. It would be an attractive gamble for many broadcasters, and the money would be invaluable for the development of the game in the lower-league countries. It would also provide at least some form of financial safety net for the relegated team.
4. Redefine the International Window – IRB Regulation 9
The current rules state that a club must allow a player to play for his country for five of the seven weeks between February and mid-March, meaning that players for smaller nations are often called back for club duty during international weekends – Georgia’s Mamuka Gorgodze being one such example. Not only is this not particularly good for player welfare, but it also puts smaller nations at a disadvantage; larger unions with more clout are in a position to agree that the starting XV at least must remain with their country for training.
Amending the regulation to enable countries to insist that 15 of their players remain with them for training evens out the playing field as far as game preparation is concerned, and looks after the welfare of players of the smaller nations who are often under significant financial pressure to get games in for their club.
5. Set a date – all of the above can’t be done immediately
Nations need to prepare and put contingencies in place. But enough of the ‘why nots’, somebody needs to put a date on change and say, “This is when it is happening – you have plenty of notice.” My suggestion would be following the 2019 World Cup. But such a suggestion requires somebody with the guts to stand up against the richer nations and demand change for the benefit of rugby as a whole.
Unfortunately, proposals like these go against the interests of the Unions who hold the power in the IRB. There is an opportunity for rugby to finally justify their claim of being a truly global sport. But I’m not holding my breath.
By Mike Cooper (@RuckedOver)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images