Since Italy joined the 6 nations back in 2000, it has no doubt done strides for expanding the game into a new market outside of the traditional centres of rugby power in the Northern hemisphere. However, the problem remains that despite the competition being highly competitive with two thirds of the teams winning the Grand Slam since the expansion, the structure of the competition continues to stifle the development of the sport across Europe.
Many have made the case that Italy ought to be relegated out of the Six Nations for repeated poor performances, having accumulated twelve wooden spoons since joining. However, this isn’t the answer to the true problem with European international rugby or the competition itself, which does not allow the consistently improving teams, especially Georgia and Romania, the opportunity to compete against the top tier sides on a consistent basis. With their continued rise in the World Rugby rankings, Georgia now sits two sports above Italy in 12th, and only three spots below France, while Romania are only one place behind Italy in 15th. The exclusion of the Tier 2 teams in Europe is most apparent when it comes to Georgia, who over the decade have won seven of the nine Rugby Europe Championships, the tier below the six nations, yet have seen no recognition for this. Such is the exclusion that in fixture between Georgia and Wales at the Principality Stadium in the Autumn Internationals 2017 was the first fixture between those two sides in their history. As it stands, Tier 2 teams seldom play Six Nations sides unless drawn against them at the World Cup.
Although the idea of a promotion/relegation playoff scenario has been floated, this would threaten the financial stability any side that was relegated, to the extent where it is unreasonable for any team who can in such a competitive competition could face that scenario any given year, to ever agree to it. Evidently, what is needed is an expansion of the current competition to allow to game to continue to grow beyond the nations who have dominated the game for decades. This could also help to rejuvenate Italy’s performances within the tournament, giving opponents who they can regularly compete with, instead of being the competitions punching bag which it has been with substantial frequency.
The Six Nations is one of the most highly anticipated annual sporting events in the world, with viewership in 2017 of over 126 million, with TV coverage in 189 countries worldwide. However, if the sport is going to continue to evolve and grow across Europe, and not just sustain for the nations who have the oldest rugby traditions, then the competition needs to expand to include high performing Tier 2 teams.