Gareth Dyer’s rugby column

Now is not the time to expand the Six Nations
Now is not the time to expand the Six Nations
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It has been a bad week for Rugby’s “bleeding heart pundits” who have gone into a collective meltdown following comments from the Six Nations CEO John Feehan that there are no plans to add Georgia to the competition.

In fact, it has got so hysterical in some quarters that I was expecting a pundit to break down screaming, ‘WILL THEY NOT JUST THINK ABOUT THE GEORGIANS’.

This all comes in the midst of one of the most competitive Six Nations tournaments in years. But whilst England, Wales, Ireland, France and Scotland are running each other very close in higher quality games than we have seen in years, there is of course the question of what to do to improve the standing of Italy.

If Feehan’s rather terse comments about Georgian rugby extended to the phrase: “Our primary role is not to develop other unions” then by association surely it is time for the Six Nations to get his collective head around how Italian rugby can be improved so that we avoid the thrashings that Italy generally receive.

In the 1990s Italy built an impressive case to join the then Five Nations with regular wins over Tier One nations. The Italian Rugby Union was backed by big business.

They had continuously won the European Nations Cup – Europe’s second tier competition beating the likes of Romania, Spain, Portugal et al with increasing ease.

It also made sense to increase the Five Nations to Six to ensure each round had three fixtures rather than one team having to sit out each round for a rest weekend. It could also be argued that adding Rome to the circuit would also enhance the spectator experience.

But after the initial fairytale of an opening day win over Scotland in 2000, the reality has been somewhat more chastening. In 82 Six Nations games – up to and including the 60-point thrashing handed out by Ireland last time out– Italy have won just 12 times.

They have finished bottom of the table 11 times and next to bottom a further four. They have finished fourth on two occasions – those being the only seasons where they managed two wins in a campaign.

It is accepted that Italy start okay in the tournament but as the weeks pass they get increasingly weaker. As they start to lose players to injury, the lack of depth in the squad is ruthlessly exposed.

The finger could be pointed at the Italian Rugby Union to say that they have had long enough to get to grips with the demands of being a Six Nations member.

But scratch below the surface and Italian club rugby is a mess. Its two professional sides compete in the Pro12 and regularly finish in the bottom two places.

There is a palpable drop off in intensity in the Pro12 whenever an Italian side is involved, particularly away from home. The matchday experience is almost non-existent for the paying spectator.

So Italy need help. The other Five Nations must start to assist the Italian Union in developing their structures and competence. A first step in the right direction would be for the Italian clubs to join the French league system. The travelling to the Celtic Nations must just drain money out of the game and with low crowds the norm at Italian club games, there is more likelihood of better support from the power base of the French game which is in the south of the country.

Yes, but why should this stop Georgia’s advance you might ask? Well quite sensibly, what is to suggest that the plight of Georgia would be any different? After all their claims to be considered for the Six Nations bear a striking resemblance to those offered by Italy in the 1990s.

A decent group of players have come together and there is money in Georgian rugby due to a billionaire benefactor in the form of a former Prime Minister. Rugby is also challenging to be the most popular game in the country, something which could not be said of Italy.

But at this point the Six Nations would not be the place to stress test their claims. If the structure is built on sand, then there can be no long-term stability.

Feehan is wrong that it is not the Six Nations responsibility to develop other unions. It is. But it must be done in the right way. Build the strength of domestic Georgian rugby, invite their clubs to play in European competitions, make the Six Nations countries regularly play them for a period of years and ensure there is longevity in their system.

Then and only then should promotion to the Six Nations be considered however much the trendy view is to promote before they are really ready.