(Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
Forget Christmas. The most wonderful time of the year, at least in my book, comes in February and March when the Six Nations takes place: 15 matches over five weekends, as Europe’s top international rugby teams square off for bragging rights.
Of course, I’m a rugby aficionado, completely devoted to Glasgow Warriors and the Scottish national team. But the Six Nations captures the imagination of those with even the vaguest interest in the game.
And it’s easy to see why – it’s a fantastic tournament, steeped in history, with fierce and longstanding rivalries. Not to mention its unpredictable nature, making every year, indeed every game, exciting.
For Scots, it’s also a reassuring constant in the sporting calendar, with no agonising qualification campaign required for our participation.
With happy fans, and strong revenues from ticket sales, sponsorship and broadcasting rights, why rock the boat and argue to change it?
Well, it boils down to whether rugby chiefs are serious about growing the global reach of the game – a priority of World Rugby, the game’s governing body.
Sure, the focus is building on roots in the US and Canada for obvious commercial reasons. But that is a longer-term project, and does not mean that other countries further along in their rugby development should be ignored.
Currently, the Six Nations represents “a closed shop”, with the tier one European nations seemingly happy to maintain a status quo that suits them.
It is easy to argue that the Six Nations teams are those that bring most to the table in terms of history, strength of rugby, fans and viewers. But others are knocking on the door.
Take the example of Georgia. As things stand, they are two places above Italy – a Six Nations team – in the world rankings, and have won eight of the last ten incarnations of the Rugby International Championship (the tournament for tier two and tier three rugby unions, sometimes referred to as the Six Nations B).
Not only this, but they regularly attract 50,000 fans and did a sterling job of hosting the 2017 Under 20 Championship.
It’s a similar situation with the Pacific Nations – Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. They don’t get to play in the Rugby Championship (the southern hemisphere equivalent of the Six Nations) despite playing some of the most exciting and attacking brands of rugby in the world.
Meanwhile, the New Zealand and Australia squads feature many players of Pacific Island descent – either the children of immigrants or as a result of active talent poaching.
Yet, at the same time, the All Blacks and Wallabies have played just a handful of away tests to Pacific Island teams, depriving their rugby unions of much needed revenues from gate receipts and broadcasting rights.
Why shouldn’t countries like Georgia, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa, which are increasingly competitive and have committed and passionate fan bases, be given the chance to play at a higher level? There has to be a carrot for sustained improvement, otherwise where is the incentive? Playing against stronger opposition regularly, and the funding boost to be gained, would only make these teams better still. Perhaps that’s what the tier one countries are afraid of.
I accept that there are logistical challenges. Tbilisi is an eight-hour flight from both Edinburgh and Dublin, which makes it difficult for travelling fans. Fixtures are generally scheduled a couple of years in advance. And the impact on the domestic leagues has to be considered.
However, for too long the upper echelon of international rugby has been the preserve of a small pool of countries. If the game is serious about going global, those are challenges that will have to be overcome.
P.S. I’d hate to disappoint if you were reading this looking for a prediction. So, here is how I think the table will look at the end of the tournament.
This article originally appeared in the Chalotte Street Partners daily briefing. To subscribe to the briefing, click here