The preservation of the Six Nations is a paramount point that has now been secured

Ireland players celebrate with the Six Nations trophy and Triple Crown trophy. Photo: Sportsfile

Ben ColesTelegraph Media Group Limited

Tampering with the format of the Six Nations felt dangerous enough when a Nations Championship was first proposed in 2019. Fortunately, that attempt to shake up rugby's global order never made it past the planning stage.

But messing with the format now, after arguably the best edition of the Six Nations since Italy entered the fold more than 20 years ago? Well, that would have been madness.

Which is why the news that the Six Nations will be protected as part of the new nations league, which will be launched in 2026, should be celebrated.

Whispers of South Africa becoming part of the Six Nations have increased with the addition of club sides to the United Rugby Championship and European Cup. They have been seen as the first steps in laying the groundwork for South Africa to either join the northern hemisphere's premier competition as a seventh side or replace one of the six, most likely Italy.

Connecting South Africa to the Six Nations may have made sense given the South African Rugby Union's desire to play in a more friendly time zone and crack a lucrative European market, after three decades of jetting back and forth across the Indian Ocean to play in the original Tri-Nations and Super Rugby. But the prospect of the Springboks joining the Six Nations has never really been on the negotiating table.

The Stormers are URC defending champions and they or the Sharks and Bulls could end up winning this season's Champions Cup after all three qualified for the last 16. But for now that will be as far as South Africa's influence into rugby in Europe extends.

Unsurprisingly, there is a financial element to the decision to ringfence the Six Nations. Relegation and the subsequent loss of revenue from broadcasting deals and sponsorship would have been financially crippling for any of the unions involved, even those on stronger financial footings, potentially leaving them in positions from which they could not recover.

There was a strong argument to remove Italy and proceed with a stronger country when it felt as though the other five nations were hauling around some deadwood, but the performances of the Azzurri over the past year - even if they finished the 2023 Six Nations without a win - have changed that conversation.

Victories over Wales and Australia were positive markers but really all anyone ever wanted from Italy was for the side to be competitive.

The wave of young Italian talent being nurtured by Kieran Crowley has made the previously perennial no-hopers become a team you can enjoy watching, perhaps even more than in the heyday of Sergio Parisse and Martin Castrogiovanni, when a rare number of world-class players carried the rest of their team-mates. One colleague described watching Ange Capuozzo running rings around England at Twickenham as one of his highlights of a Six Nations stacked full of high-quality moments.

It is not all good news though. The disappointment of losing regular summer tours so soon after Ireland's triumph in New Zealand, when they created history by becoming the first northern hemisphere side to defeat the All Blacks in a three-Test series on their own turf, would perhaps not have been felt so dearly a decade ago, when teams were heading south each summer and losing every Test by an aggregate margin of 40-50 points.

The quality now of Ireland, even post-Johnny Sexton, makes those summer series and the challenge of winning multiple Tests in New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and Argentina seem far more interesting, at a point when they will be discarded. At least France, in British and Irish Lions years, will be able to continue that tradition.

Then again, if that is the price for keeping the Six Nations intact, it seems worth it. Playing multiple teams each summer and autumn also rectifies an issue which has brewed for some time: that tier-one nations have not played enough Tests beyond the usual touring spots, especially in the Pacific Islands.

England have not played in Fiji since 1991, which is embarrassing. That is set to change between 2026 and 2030, with all sides in each division of 12 facing each other home and away twice in the four-year cycle.

This is a seismic change to rugby's structure which will be met with some grumbling and take some adjusting to.

But the preservation of the Six Nations was a paramount point of negotiation. That has now been secured.