Should the Six Nations introduce relegation?
March 7, 2013
Would you like to see Georgia grace the Six Nations? © Getty Images
The latest battle for Six Nations glory is in full swing with an unbeaten England leading the chase for a first Grand Slam since 2003.
At the other end of the table, France are struggling following three straight defeats that leave them on course for the wooden spoon for the first time since 1999.
Thankfully for them, a last-place finish in the battle for the northern hemisphere will not threaten their place in the championship - but should they be assured of their place?
Would things get a lot more interesting if the Six Nations committee introduced relegation/promotion?
What do you think? Let us know your thoughts or join the debate below.
February 3, 2013 - the date that proved relegation from the Six Nations should not yet become a reality. In front of a packed Stadio Olimpico, Italy beat France 23-18 - it was the second time in three years that the Azzurri had got the better of Les Bleus.
It was a seminal moment in Italy's rugby history. They had gone from the Six Nations whipping boys, who occasionally picked up the odd win, to a significant force in the championship. Had relegation been introduced a few years back, then it is unlikely that they would have had the chance to develop into the respected force they are now.
Martin Castrogiovanni recently said that back in 2002 he could have walked down Rome's main street and people would not have batted an eyelid; these days he will be recognised as 'that rugby player'. This is down to their inclusion in the championship.
Italy have finished at the foot of the table on nine occasions since their introduction in 2000. Scotland have taken the wooden spoon three times. Would the championship organisers really want to deny England and Scotland the chance to compete for the Calcutta Cup on an annual basis if those north of the border were relegated to Europe's second tier? No.
Commercially it would not make sense and Italy are now making similar noises. They packed out the Olimpico for their match against France and also Wales. They will probably experience a similar attendance for their final match against Ireland.
It has taken Italy the best part of a decade to get up to speed with the rest of Europe and club side Treviso are now reaping the benefits. On a weekend when they were bereft of their Italian contingent they beat Munster, who were also without their Ireland internationals - it shows how far they have come. And this is primarily due to the developing Italian side.
France could finish at the foot of the table this year after their shocking campaign. If they were relegated to Europe's second tier, would they benefit from putting 50 points on the likes of Romania and in turn, would the Oaks take anything from the experience? It looks doubtful.
And then there is that question of tradition. We have already argued for and against the bonus point system and similar to the question of relegation, it will split people. But this great tournament works in its current format, do not fiddle with it.
It took France 44 years to win their first championship after being drafted in back in 1910. Italy should be allowed a longer bedding-in period than 13 years. Relegation and promotion from one tier to the next is not something that should be ignored, but now is not the time to curtail those green shoots of optimism that Italy are increasingly showing year-on-year.
ESPNscrum senior editor Graham Jenkins argues that relegation may be the way forward:
The Six Nations is without doubt the most enthralling and engaging rugby competition outside of the World Cup and must be treated with due reverence but not at the expense of the rest of the sport.
The International Rugby Board constantly talks of expanding the game beyond its traditional boundaries and they have been good to their word to a certain extent with Japan set to play host to the 2019 World Cup and a return to the Olympics set to further fuel the global advancement of Sevens.
SANZAR are doing their bit to support efforts to grow the game with the recent introduction of Argentina to The Rugby Championship despite logistical and financial hurdles but the Six Nations committee are clearly not willing to play ball because no one wants to lose their place at Europe's top table where there are rich rewards on offer from sponsors and broadcasters.
But how can a sport to intent on expansion operate such a closed shop in arguably its most important market? It is not like the structure of the game outside the Six Nations is not up to scratch with FIRA - the Fédération Internationale de Rugby Amateur - Association Européenne de Rugby - having been organising international rugby across the continent for the best part of the century. It is worth noting that 14 of the top 30 sides in the IRB rankings are from Europe and let us not forget that current Six Nations sides France and Italy both graduated from FIRA's ranks.
The European Nations Cup incorporates seven divisions that all operate on a promotion/relegation basis and therefore offer a logical development pathway. The pinnacle is Division 1A where Georgia and Romania are currently leading the way in the battle for what is considered the 'Six Nations B' title but that is close as they will get to the real Six Nations.
Europe's leading Tier 2 sides are starved of top flight competition with the World Cup the only chance they have to gauge themselves against the best the sport has to offer - all this while their geographic neighbours play host to Tier 2 nations from the rest of the world every autumn. It may not make box office sense to the Six Nations but it doesn't make sense full stop to the majority of observers.
There is a major logistical issue to overcome with the European Nations Cup currently contested over a two-year period in contrast to the annual Six Nations contest but surely with a little further investment from the IRB both they and FIRA could engineer a change?
Admittedly, it would be near impossible for a promoted side to compete with their Six Nations rivals such is the gulf in class and that may in turn impact on the popularity of the championship and its ability to engage the wider public.
So why not introduce a play-off game between the bottom-placed side in the Six Nations and the European Nations Cup champions? A two-legged affair would allow for any 'freak' results and while the lower-ranked side would inevitably always lose it would give them priceless exposure to the world's best.
The potential offer of a place in the Six Nations would serve as a significant carrot to those sides determined to better themselves and ensure the championship was seen supporting the wider efforts to develop the sport and its core audience.
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