It seems kind of counter-productive to bring this up now as Italy have come on in leaps and bounds over the past 24 months, but after watching Portugal’s performance against Wales, perhaps it’s time for the 6 Nations to introduce a promotion/relegation play-off alongside the Rugby Europe International Championship.
While Ireland and France are streaks ahead of the European minnows, the other four sides in the competition have all come close to losing to or have lost to Tier 2 opposition since the previous World Cup with Wales going down 12-13 to Georgia last November, while Fiji beat England only a month ago at Twickenham.
Scotland have also come unstuck against Tier 2 opposition in recent times with Japan giving them a real run for their money back at the close of 2021, while Italy put up a mammoth fight against the men in dark blue during the World Cup warm-up fixtures.
Italy, a tier 2 team themselves, have also struggled against opposition in their division 28-19 to Georgia during the 2022 Autumn Series, while Portugal only lost to them by seven points when the two sides met during the same series.
While a lot of those result came near the back end of COVID and when teams were experimenting with their line-ups in order to add squad depth for the World Cup, one still has to take note of the results and wonder if World Rugby aren’t missing a trick by at least adding a promotion/relegation fixture to the 6 Nations.
While there have been heavy defeats for the likes of Romania and a couple of the South American teams at the global showpiece, we’ve also seen some promise from Portugal and Georgia continues to show they can mix it with the Ter 1 big guns.
Wales were in real trouble against Portugal at 7-3 just before the half-time break, while Georgia also troubled Australia in their clash 35-15 defeat to Australia and had the Wallabies bricking when they scored just after half-time.
The biggest endorsement for a changeup has to be the Fijians. Yes, they are not a part of the 6 Nations nor European rugby, but they can be used as a blueprint for rapid improvement. They have bagged wins over Tier 1 opposition in the past two months beating England at Twickenham and then Australia at the World Cup.
Perhaps this is the route to follow for European rugby. Get more Georgian and Portuguese sides involved in club competitions such as the Challenge Cup and PRO14 and then push for a 6 Nations promotion/relegation game? A sort of five-year plan if you will. Expand domestically for three years and then push for 6 Nations promotions.
There’s not much to lose for anyone apart from the six sides that currently sit at the 6 Nations table as an extra game means more income and more interest from fledgling audiences.
It will be interesting to look back at this piece come the close of the Pool Phase of the 2023 World Cup and see if the sentiment still holds sway but if Portugal can put in a couple more big shifts, then I am personally sold on this idea that started with a conversation between myself and a French mate in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi.