Six Nations: Time for Change?


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

20 thoughts on “Six Nations: Time for Change?

  1. Good article and agree with most of your points.

    However, if I were bringing this in I’d force the Six Nations to adopt the ENC format of playing one tournament home and away over two years.

    The Six Nations is a great tournament and I love how every match has a cup-knockout type feel because there really isn’t much time to make up for poor results, but if you are potentially relegating someone on the back of it then you need to have home and away.

    For example, Scotland and Italy are the worst two teams in the tournament and the wooden spoon is expected to be between these two. Let’s say that this doesn’t change.

    In 2020 (the first tourney with relegation under your proposal), Italy will play Scotland at home. This is a massive advantage and, in such a huge game (now relegation is involved) could be decisive.

    If it was a two-year tournament then this effect would cancel out over the two-years.

    1. Agree with you Rob- if we have relegation then it needs to be done every two years to negate the advantage of home matches… but otherwise I think this is all sound reasoning. Would be a shame for some of the historical matches of course- imagine there being no England Scotland dust up one year? Sad times

    2. Would clarify that I would still have the 6N as a yearly tournament but would have the ‘worst’ loser (on total loses/points difference) from the 2 years up for relegation, not make it a 2 year tournament.

      1. I like Henry’s idea, although I couldn’t see Scotland or Italy drop out of The 6 Nations it would give the European teams who are just bubbling under like Georgia and Russia the game time against stronger opposion which would improve them and improve the International appeal of the game.

        The other trophies such as the Calcutta Cup and other accolades such as The Triple Crown and Grand Slam could stand yearly but the tournament would be won over two games, home and away bi-annually.

    3. That is a good point. Let’s, for example, take the fact that for a long time Eng and Fra were the dominant teams. Every other year Wales play one of those away but Ire play both of them away. Wouldn’t seem fair, given how much home advantage often counts, to relegate Ireland?

      As for the general idea – rugby being a global game is not the same as all competitions being open so I don’t see a conflict between a closed 6 nations, which is a comp run the 6 nations committee for their own end, and this “global game” idea. Yeah, it’d help Georgia out loads if we opened up the 6 Nations, it would do zip for the 6 teams already in it.

      The 6 nations is one of the few times the average person gets interested in rugby, that would diminish sig. if it was England v Georgia rather than Eng v Sco. We all play each other due to regional proximity (historically). Then we added Italy which is still developing (we need them to become a regular “we could lose here” type of fixture rather than a “sometimes Italy will win” one).

      If you change the current 6Ns, if you make it a meritocratic comp open to all nations who decide to play rugby in the NH, then you will kill it.

  2. I find it alarming that many forms of the rugby media appear to have an interest in spreading the international game wider whilst at the same time seeing no problem in “siding” with those who appear hell bent on turning the club game into an Anglo-French carve up.

    As for the article, I can see some merit but equally I believe that with the 6 Nations, there is more than simply merit involved , there are traditions there that if lost may be irreplaceable. That of course is not to say that traditions must be maintained at all costs, just an issue that needs thorough consideration.

    1. What’s the Anglo-French carve up and who’s hell bent on promoting it? or are you just harping back to the tired old ERC debacle?.

  3. The ENC divisions are just names, there is a clear ladder already in place, promotion from 1B to 1A, relegation from 1B to 2A, etc.

  4. OR

    We could simply just insist that international fixtures include a set number of Tier one, two and three games outside of the relevant nations competition over a 12 month period.

    Say a minimum of 4 tier one, 2 tier two and one tier 3 game must be played on a yearly basis.

    Take England this summer, two games v’s NZ, one V Samoa and one v Papua New guinea, then giving them Australia and South Africa in the Autumn and one V’s Fiji.

    Next summer England could take two games V’s South Africa one V’s Namibia and come back via Georgia.

  5. Interesting article.

    I don’t like the idea of promotion/relegation from the 6N. If we didn’t have France in this year it’s just become a lesser competition, with fewer people watching it and French broadcasters wanting their money back. Or if, for example, Scotland were relegated I don’t see the following years competition being improved without a Calcutta Cup match. I would rather 6N become 7N when the next nation is ready to join. The gulf between 6N and the next tier is far too great for this to be viable so we need other solutions for growing the game.

    A couple of other options/ideas:
    – Enter the Saxons and Wolfhounds into a second tier tournament. Saxons vs Georgia for example would be a reasonably competitive fixture. These sorts of fixture would also help sell 6N coverage into these markets. And as a revenue generator will bring in more than some of the fixtures they currently get.
    – Lets have highlights packages from the ENC shown in 6N countries to spread awareness and interest.
    – No idea how the 6N revenues are currently divided up, but using a proportion of them to fund the development of the game in Europe may be worthwhile. May work out very well in the long term, if the interest in the game grows so does the value of the television rights in those countries.

    1. Really like the idea of developing the Saxons/Wolfhounds/Scotland A into a proper tournament. Currently such limited opportunity for fringe players to show they can cut it at a high level. However would countries such as Georgia feel a bit insulted at playing a 2nd string England or Scotland team? Considering, as mentioned, they very nearly upset some of the tier 1s at the previous World Cups?

      Completely new idea, developing a European tournament (a la Euro cup in football) every 4 years (in between the World Cup) to offer tier 2s a chance at playing the big nations without changing the 6N (take a year off?) and still giving a big incentive to the Tier 1s. Can imagine they would be happy to play in a big tournament, especially as this would give some World Cup style tournament experience to new players. See how they perform in an international semi-final. Give us an edge of the southern teams?


      1. Interesting point, maybe they wouldn’t be seen as great fixtures if they weren’t full cap internationals. However if they were turning over the ‘A’ sides with any regularity then it can only help their cause securing more fixtures or #N membership. 3 A sides + Georgia, Romania and Russia/Portugal would provide some pretty competitive fixtures.

        A tourney on a 4 year cycle would be interesting, replacing the summer tours in Lions year would look like the best opportunity to fit it in. The home nations aren’t at full strength, but it’s still full cap internationals.

  6. I believe this would be the best for European rugby (and would make the wooden spoon matches more interesting).
    Meritocracy is the fairest solution.
    However, the 6N is a cartel and may fight this.

    1. Nick I agree to an extent in that top tier nations could (and should) be doing a lot more to help the development of the game, but I can’t see how relegating one of them out of the championship would be the answer. E.g. how happy would a headline sponsor like RBS be about sponsoring a tournament that isn’t guaranteed to contain Scotland? Broadcast and sponsorship revenues would be severely impacted, then there will be the need for parachute payments for unions that rely on 6N income to fund their domestic games when they get relegated. There has to be a better solution than one that will reduce income for everyone.

  7. Why do we need promotion/relegation? Just add Georgia or the 7th highest ranked euro team to the 6n following 2015 wc. Rename competition, a la 5n to 6n and we are done. Build in proposals to increase to 8 after rwc 2019 to o
    continue the north hemisphere development.

    south hemisphere should also introduce 5th ranked southern team to the tri nations comp, for example samoa etc

  8. The answer is relatively simple and easy to implement
    Hold a euro cup every two years with regular qualifiers leading up to pool stages and the final play off places
    Who says the six nations has to be six teams it was only five not that long ago and BT sport would be wrong the BBC would be better as its free and will encourage an audience
    I’ll still support England though

Comments are closed.