There has been much talk and jostling about the status of the club championships in Europe. The way I read it, France and England are not overly content with teams from Italy and Scotland qualifying so easily for the Heineken Cup.
This debate made me think more broadly about the national competition equivalent starting next week – the Six Nations.
The original Home Championship started in 1883 and is obviously steeped in tradition, but in this age of professionalism, are we coming close to a point where the Six Nations begins to take on a promotion relegation system?
The European Nations Cup is starting to take the shape of a tough competition in its own right and has much more potential in terms of audience growth given that there are so many European nations involved.
I see here a conflict between two entities that one could sometimes mistake for being one in the same, the IRB and Six Nations Rugby Ltd.
Surely it is in the IRB’s interest if not being the number one goal to expand and grow the game internationally.
Is a closed and elite competition like the 6N working directly against this objective? How is a team like Georgia who have won five of the past ENC tournaments going to get to the next level without being able to play against 6N sides on a regular basis?
The introduction of Italy has only been a good thing for rugby there, despite little on-field success, but surely a seven nations comp is one team too far. So, is relegation/promotion an option?
England a have played Scotland on an annual basis (except world war years) for the Calcutta Cup, which I believe to be the oldest piece of silverware in the international game.
It would be unspeakable for both the English and the Scots to imagine a year without a game because one of the teams was relegated to the ENC.
However, eventually the IRB will have to allow a system to allow third tier teams to flourish. Is the onus on the lesser ENC teams to raise the bar themselves or will we one day see a 6N competition that doesn’t involve the current teams?
Maybe there will come a day where the winner of the 6N plays the winner of the ENC for “European bragging rights”.
Of course I’m talking about at least 30 years down the track but it is probably better that the IRB considers todays minnows sooner rather than later.
There are many paths that the IRB can take to nurture world rugby via both club, provincial and national systems but one thing it can’t do is neglect the minnows of the sport by excluding them from high level competition.
The Rugby World Cup is a great advertisement for the game but it can’t be he sole access for smaller nations to show their abilities.
I’m hoping there will be 24 teams in the Rugby World Cup finals in Japan for example but things need to be done between world cups to reinforce and further the popularity of the sport.