Thursday 22 March 2018

Why the Six Nations cannot continue to forget Georgia

Six Nations chief executive John Feehan says “This is a closed tournament.
Six Nations chief executive John Feehan says “This is a closed tournament." (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)
David Kelly

David Kelly

Most rugby eyes will be focused on London this weekend as England's chariot targets its 25th Triple Crown.

But there is another European Grand Slam attempt ongoing; unlike England's, this one has a sweeping inevitability about it, even if the outcome will most probably not appear on your TV coverage, small newspaper print or Twitter feed.

Georgia visit Russia in Sochi this Saturday hoping to extend their unbeaten record in the European Nations Cup; they have not lost in the competition since 2010 and will, inevitably, collect yet another title this spring in front of 15,000 fans in Tblisi.

Few, though, in the thronged streets of Dublin, London or Edinburgh this weekend will raise a jar to celebrate their victory. Few, in reality, will even know about it.

A closed shop ensures one's shutters can be abruptly snapped secure when one pleases. And only the owners can admit guests on their terms.

The Six Nations retains its reputation as the self-styled grandest tournament of the world but its lustre so often can only be viewed from within, rather than from without.

There are the packed stadia, the cosseted TV coverage on free-to-air platforms and ceaseless coverage of games that are often monochrome compared to the technicolour splash in which they are presented.

As the Six Nations enters its final fortnight, Ireland and their next two opponents, Italy and Scotland, are scrambling to fill the bottom three places in the table while the title is being decided elsewhere.

Scotland, having just avoided a tenth successive defeat in the championship, face France in what seems an inevitable race to avoid the wooden spoon with Italy, who have finished bottom in 10 of their 16 seasons since Five Nations belatedly became Six in 2000. Should that happen, and nothing suggests that it will not, they will remain below Georgia in the world rankings yet will retain their attendance at the top table for 2017 and, presumably, beyond.

So too their representation in the Pro12 and the European Champions Cup; although the latter has seen their once guaranteed representation halved, the automatic qualification of either perennial whipping boys Zebre or Treviso from the Pro12 will yet again skew that league's European qualification process.

There will be a necessarily parochial feel to the final fortnight of Ireland's campaign, not to mention the millions of euro that will fill the capital's economy from fans at two games sold out despite the absence of silverware on offer, but there is a bigger picture which is being ignored.

Is it time for relegation, or even the merest threat of relegation, via the stick of a play-off, to be introduced into the grand old competition? Perhaps so.

At the moment, there are only ever four realistic contenders to win the title - Ireland, England, Wales and France; Scotland and Italy have begun every campaign since the start of the millennium with the precise aim of trying not to finish bottom.

On the basis of results alone, their constant, comfortable presence amongst the elite cannot be demonstrated to have improved the overall standard of the game in either country, save lone breakthroughs from Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Meanwhile, the peripheral, untapped resources of European rugby remain on the outside looking in and, despite the presence of so many Georgians in France's Top 14, their efforts remain hamstrung.

If Italy or Scotland were to be faced with the grim reality that should apply to any league competition, the threat of temporary expulsion for under-performers, the Six Nations could receive a vital shot in the arm.

So too World Rugby's attempts to globalise a game still restricted to too few territories, despite shovelling millions into the sport (and here we give a hat-tip to ex-Terenure number eight legend, Mark Egan, who is to the forefront of development of the less established nations).

The northern hemisphere's failure to make the World Cup semi-finals reflected the unsuitability of the Six Nations as a stepping stone to putative world dominance.

Something needs to change. Yet the elite, who retain two votes per nation at the top table even though, for example, all the Pacific Islanders combined - Tonga, Samoa and Fiji - have just one between them, remain resistant to real change.

"Rugby is so out of touch," said Tongan chairman Epi Taione during the World Cup.

"It's run by colonialists who still think they run the world like it was 100 years ago."

Those who run the Six Nations, in essence a commercial rather than a sporting project, clearly feel the same; their modus operandi is to keep the tills clicking.

"This is a closed tournament," said Six Nations chief executive John Feehan before this year's tournament began.

"This is not a subject on our agenda and, frankly, it is not the job of the Six Nations to provide solutions for Georgia, Romania or anyone else."

Message, bluntly, received. The accountants, in reality, are in charge.

Argentina have dramatically shown what can be achieved if emerging, non-traditional forces are given the opportunity, and platform, to strive for better. Their European counterparts may, it seems, have to wait.

Irish Independent

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