Last chance saloon for the Azzuri?

Perhaps one of the most hotly debated topics surrounding the Six Nations this year has been whether or not it is time to bid farewell to Italy and offer another nation the opportunity to throw their hat in the ring. 

Italy’s last win in the tournament was a 19-22 victory over Scotland at Murrayfield in February 2015. Between then and now, the Azzuri have failed to win any of their 20+ fixtures in the competition and have already suffered two nilled defeats in their opening three matches of this year’s Six Nations. 

Currently 14th in the Men’s World Rugby rankings and with the likes of Samoa, Uruguay and the United States all closing the gap year by year, Italy is in real danger of falling further afield and dropping below their lowest ever ranking of 15th. 

Not only is this Italian freefall detrimental to the integrity of the Six Nations, but it also is not a pleasant spectacle for the fans or anyone else associated with the team. These are increasingly worrying times for the Italian Rugby Federation who, now more than ever, are facing serious questions surrounding their country’s future status in the Six Nations.

One nation that always seems to be mentioned as worthy replacements is Georgia, who are currently ranked two places above Italy and performed strongly in the 2020 Rugby Europe Championship – as they do every year. Played between European national teams outside of the Six Nations sphere, the Rugby Europe Championship provides countries with opportunities to showcase their skills, abilities and, most importantly, desire to improve. Prior to the Coronavirus outbreak, which has seen the Rugby Europe Championship placed on hold, Georgia were sitting atop the table having won one hundred per cent of their opening four fixtures and accumulating a staggering points difference of +128. 

Not for one moment am I suggesting that the teams Georgia were up against posed the same sorts of competitive threats as the likes of England, Ireland and France, however, surely Italy have been given more than enough chances to show that they can compete at Europe’s highest level, yet have proved time and time again that they’re just not up to par at the moment. 

One scenario that has been tabled on several occasions is implementing some form of promotion and relegation stipulation between the Rugby Europe Championship and the Six Nations. Do I think this would be a positive change? Absolutely. 

Let’s be realistic, Italy are never going to be real contenders for the Six Nations title. With this lack of expectancy comes a settlement for averageness. Without the threat of being demoted to a lesser competition, there is no real incentive for them not to finish bottom of the table. Since joining Europe’s elite in 2000, Italy have finished in sixth place a grand total of 14 times, with their highest finishes (fourth) coming in 2007 and 2013. 

This salient reason is why, I believe, for the sake of the progression and development of not just second-tier European nations but also Italy, there should be promotion and relegation in the Six Nations. Not only would this provide fantastic opportunities for elite learning and growth for the likes of Georgia, but it could also be the rude awakening that Italian rugby has needed for some time. 

Do I think that Georgia would be immediately successful? Of course not. I think it would be very naive of me to insinuate that Georgia’s addition to the Six Nations would reap immediate benefits, however, no one can ever expect Georgia to improve without increased exposure to tier-one nations.

Assuming Italy were to drop down into the Rugby Europe Championship, the likelihood is that they would (and should) win most if not all of their matches. Wouldn’t that be bad for the likes of Spain, Belgium, Germany and other countries in the competition? Not exactly. While it may seem that promotion and relegation may just result in Georgia and Italy swapping places each year and decimating their opposition in the Rugby Europe Championship time after time, I believe that if other nations, like Spain, Belgium and Germany, knew that they had the opportunity to ply their trade against some of the world’s best teams and showcase individuals to the likes of the Premiership, PRO14, Super Rugby and Top 14, not only would that be a constant driver for improvement but also, could encourage more indigenous people to take an active interest and become involved in rugby at grassroots. For the sake of the tournament and the progression of European rugby as a whole, something needs to change in the not so distant future. Whether a grassroots club or an international test side, aspirations of progressing and being the best you can be is a vital element in all sports. If there is no way up, then the only alternatives are to go down or remain stagnant in a limbo of unfulfilled uncertainty. Some may argue that sticking to the status quo is best but I for one prefer the ‘you never know until you try’ option.

Views, opinions and words by Tom Home.

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