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Alan Quinlan: 'Six Nations needs to look at greater good and introduce play-off for relegation/promotion'

 

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Agustin Pichot. Photo: Getty Images

Agustin Pichot. Photo: Getty Images

Agustin Pichot. Photo: Getty Images

The Six Nations does an awful lot right; it captures the imagination like few other tournaments, it allows healthy tribalism to channel around our small pocket of the globe, and the best rugby players in the northern hemisphere get an opportunity to showcase their skills to an enthralled audience.

However, there is always room for improvement, and in terms of synchronising with World Rugby's vision to grow the game globally, it is time to introduce a promotion/relegation play-off with the next tier down, the Rugby Europe Championship.

Six Nations chiefs have repeatedly ruled out introducing a play-off - chief executive Ben Morel said "relegation is absolutely not on the agenda" last month - but World Rugby vice-chairman Agustin Pichot, the former Argentina No 9 live-wire, has been pushing for a commitment to a restructuring.

The perception may be that a promotion/relegation play-off would be a punishment for Italy and a reward for Georgia, but this isn't just about two countries - the accompanying panel shows that just three of the last seven seasons would have pitted those two nations against each other in a fight for the sixth spot in Europe's premier tournament.

A move towards a promotion/relegation play-off would be a win-win situation. It would energise European rugby from top to bottom; the latter stages of the Six Nations wouldn't peter out below the top teams, while there would be a huge incentive for the second-tier nations - currently Georgia, Romania, Spain, Germany, Belgium and Russia - to take rugby to the next level.

Beating

No one would be handed a free pass to the top table, you would have to earn the right by beating the last-place finisher in the Six Nations.

As it stands, France and Italy could both be heading into the final round of this year's campaign on March 16 with no wins to their name. Neutral interest in the fixture will be scarce to say the least.

Could you imagine the added intrigue that Rome showdown would generate if the loser would have to face the likes of Georgia - in a one-off game at a neutral venue, for example - to guarantee their Six Nations spot for 2020?

Many Irish children of my generation grew up in fear of the wooden spoon; it represented real punishment. In rugby terms, it is merely an unwelcome label of poor performance. The lower amount of prizemoney on the bottom rung is no more than a slap on the wrist; there should be more at stake.

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The tiers below the Six Nations already have a promotion/relegation play-off, the structure is not exactly alien.

That being said, the next layer down is far from perfect. The 2018 Rugby Europe Championship, or 'Six Nations B', was tarnished by points deductions and fines for Romania, Belgium and Spain over the fielding of ineligible players. However, the potential is definitely there.

Italy may feel that they are being targeted, having lost 19 successive Six Nations games, but the reality is if they are good enough to beat Georgia, just like they did in November, when they won 28-17 in Florence, they have nothing to fear.

We laud the Six Nations for its competitiveness yet when previewing the tournament for the last couple of years you can only champion its unpredictability by including a giant Azzurri asterisk.

The Italian club sides in the PRO14, particularly Benetton, have impressed this season and that bodes well for the international side - the Six Nations and the form of its teams, after all, is somewhat cyclical.

But the likes of Georgia, who have been the top second-tier side in Europe for eight of the past nine seasons, and have opened their 2019 campaign with victories against Romania and Spain, can no longer be ignored.

They are ranked 12th in the world, three spots ahead of the Italians, many of their top players ply their trade in the multinational club game in France, and their underage sides have been making huge strides - their U-20s beat Ireland and Scotland in last year's World Championship.

When you consider what Georgia are doing with a much smaller playing pool than the likes of Italy, it simply makes no sense - if the goal truly is to expand rugby's global appeal - not to reward them with an opportunity to qualify for the top tier.

The Six Nations, of course, is a tournament steeped in history and there are many reasons - including commercial - why the existing unions would be reluctant to change. But this is about the bigger picture and reacting to the emerging patterns.

When the bonus-point rule was brought in to encourage more expansive rugby, or Argentina were given a leg-up to the Rugby Championship, there were plenty of detractors, but both moves have changed the game for the better.

Perhaps, like Super Rugby have done by adding an Argentinian side the Jaguares in Super Rugby, the PRO14 need to look at adding a Tbilisi-based outfit, which would give Georgia's top players a more stable platform from which they could develop.

Players relish new experiences, so going to Tbilisi for a Six Nations game has plenty of appeal.

I still have vivid memories of playing a World Cup qualifier against Russia in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia in 2002, and from a tour to the Pacific Islands with Ireland nine months later - those experiences stay with you.

Four years ago New Zealand played a historic first Test match in Samoa, succumbing to years of pressure to organise a Test in the Pacific Islands.

It was seen as a long-overdue gesture in some quarters considering the number of world-renowned All Blacks who have such close ties to the region.

Recently

Just 12 months previously, New Zealand Rugby Union chief executive Steve Tew had claimed that a Test match in the Pacific was not on their agenda, even though they had recently played in faraway cities such as Chicago and Hong Kong.

The fixture in July 2015 may not have been in New Zealand's best interests financially but to the people of Samoa it meant much more than money - the small island was engrossed by fanfare, the government declared it a national half-day.

It was a celebration of Samoan rugby; they felt they got the recognition they deserved and a reward for their wider contributions to the game.

A Six Nations play-off may not be celebrated with the same verve in Georgia, but in terms of growing the sport globally, and having a just rewards system for European international sides across all levels, it would be a big step in the right direction.

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