Disclaimer: I am Italian and I am disappointed by how my team showed up in Batumi. A by-and-large strong Italian side, although with many adjustments that made me shake in my boots, lost 28-19 against a solid Georgia in what is called “the Las Vegas of the Black Sea”. The stadium was full, the crowd was class, the atmosphere great, the stadium top-notch. Over the weekend, many National teams with lower odds to win their test match won it (Wales, Scotland, Ireland above all). It all seemed ready for a Georgian win for the superstitious ones, a victory which would have elicited the usual web pundits claiming that Italy does not belong in the Six Nations. Following these people’s logic, if Georgia beat Italy, which beat Wales, which beat South Africa, which beat England, which beat the All Blacks, well… you see how this logic doesn’t hold. A single win is not telling of anything, unless it happens multiple times and consistently over the years. It does, however, have another meaning, and that is that European tier 2 rugby has grown so much that it is now being a direct challenge to weaker Six Nations teams. It is clear that Georgia would not likely beat any of the other five teams unless on their worst day, as Italy represents an exception in the Tier 1 landscape. In fact, it is also well-known that Italy is not a proper tier 1 team, rather a tier “1.5” team which played against the big boys long enough to learn the craft of consistently beating tier 2 teams; until yesterday.
The structure of European rugby leads to tier 2 frustration
The first reaction of the internet has been that Italy once again showed how weak they are. “Why are they in the Six Nations and Georgia is not? Why are they always losing yet keeping their seat at the big boys table? Why are they getting everything while others get nothing?”. This is the average comment I read on every social media platform. These comments are slightly hateful and make me uneasy, because no other team that I know gets so much hate for a loss. France won against Japan by a small margin after risking defeat for the whole game, yet nobody is talking about their right to be the #1 in the rankings right now. Italy won in Cardiff against Wales in a heroic act, yet at the first defeat the discussion on our belonging to the tournament rages on once again. I believe that the root of the issue is not Italy, rather the structure of European rugby. A closed tournament like the Six Nations does not accommodate growth of other teams by letting them in, while the Rugby Europe Championship is not comparable with it in terms of rugby level. A team like Georgia is trapped in the middle, sort of like Italy was in the 90s. Back then, Italy own against Ireland twice at home and once away, defeated France in Grenoble in 1997, and progressively earned its seat as the 6th team of the tournament. The 6N tournament, however, stopped wanting to expand after that because of its already time-consuming schedule and its toll on the players’ bodies. This put a tombstone on the ambition of other European teams. Hence, Italy has become the embodiment of the frustration of tier 2 rugby teams.
You can switch interpreter, but not the aftermath
I don’t think that Georgia, or Romania back in the 90s, would have done better than Italy in the Six Nations across the 22 years of our participation. From outside it may seem like Italy didn’t grow or didn’t take advantage of this chance, but that’s far from true. Italy in the early 2000s was lacking any sort of professional structure underneath the national team, all the best players played abroad, the formation system was unstructured and entirely handled by clubs in a sub-optimal way. The roster of the National team strongly depended on Argentinian and South African influx of talent, to compensate for the lack of depth. Over these 22 years, the Italian movement adjusted to professionalism, structured a formation system, imported coaching talent from abroad, built a winning Women National team, as well as a strong U20 team who is now consistently winning in the age grade games. In other words, Italy worked to adequate its movement to the standards of the other five, and is now consistently producing new talent in house, depending less on other nations’ exceedings. If any other team was in our place, the result would likely have been the same. Hence, swapping Italy with any other team does not, and will not, produce any better result. It will just start this process all over. Readers in their 30s will remember that Italy used to win about 1 game per tournament until 2015, with two games won in 2013. They will also remember how Italy won 23-18 against Scotland in the first game of the tournament in the year 2000. This means that the gap back then seemed bridged on the surface, but in fact it was not, and it progressively widened up again once they got around our style of rugby. The last 7 years without victories speak volumes. Replacing is not the answer: finding new ways to include new teams is.
Gatekeeping leads nowhere
This discussion has been made several times over the past years. Teams like Georgia and occasionally Romania in Europe, but also Spain and Portugal, rightfully demand more chances to play the likes of England, Scotland, Wales, France and Ireland. With the exception of Georgia, which won 11 out of the 16 Rugby Europe Championships since the year 2000 and is an established power, other teams from the Rugby Europe are also growing fast. This begets the question whether we should quickly find a way to include them in a renovated European competition. Here’s where we should learn a thing from football, for once: the European football Championship gives the chance to all the teams from all the continent to participate based on qualifier rounds that are supposed to filter out many teams while still keeping the door open to everyone. This is highly meritocratic, and for example, is the opposite of how the Six Nations works. The tradition that the Six Nations tournament represents is invaluable, but the risk of remaining a gatekeeping community like the cricket one is high. If rugby wants to grow as a sport and attract new audience it must find a way to let others in, to create internal competition, to stimulate growth. Rugby Europe teams have a right to ask for access, and it is the tier 1 teams who have to agree on a formula that lets them in without compromising the appeal of the sport and the tournament.
The Italian point of view: trapped in the shark tank
In the year 2000 we were granted access to the oldest tournament of the world, the back-then Five Nations, making it the Six Nations tournament. We officially became stakeholders of this tournament, owning 1/6 of it. It has generated lots of money, and for a decade, also a lot of media interest. The latest decade, instead, has seen a decline in it due to the fact that other teams grew faster and better than us, and no fan wants to see its team lose every game. The current situation sees us terribly lagging behind, devoid of any confidence in our means, afraid to lose the spot, hated by many tier 2 team supporters who see us as usurpers. As I wrote in the chapter title, it feels like being trapped in the shark tank, forced to fight blood-thirsty sharks with a stick. You will occasionally pierce them in the eye but it is more likely that they eat you alive. This may sound unpopular among Italian fans, but Italy too would benefit from a flexible formula that doesn’t force us to play big teams only. Every time Italy plays a tier 2 team, it becomes clear how the Italian players aren’t actually able to lead the game and take the matter into their own hands, because their usual games are spent in defense, barricading against the likes of England’s tight five trying to cut into them like knives on butter. We benefit a lot from playing against big teams every year, but we also pay a big price in terms of self-confidence and ability to test new solutions. For Italy, it is never the right moment to test a new player or a new strategy, as it is always a matter of life and death. With these three test matches (Portugal, Romania, Georgia) we could finally do that, and even if it didn’t pay off entirely due to the loss in Batumi, we still won two of the three games, away from home, and without a few key players. This is invaluable and should happen every summer, for a team that stands no chance at winning more than one game at the Six Nations, and under miraculous conditions.
A few ideas to spark discussion
We can talk about the “logical next step” for European rugby as much as we want, but the decision will have to come from the Six Nations board. Now, the inclusion of CVC in the board owning 1/7 of the stakes makes it somewhat easier, as they are a broadcasting colossus that knows profit when it sees it. Many people including me talked about potential plans to include the Springboks in a “Seven Nations” tournament, with divergent points of view. Many coaches and players do not like this idea, as it will prolong the international window and increase the toll on the body for each player, i.e. the risk of injury. Another option was to mimic the structure of the 2020 Autumn Nations Cup and adopt a two-group structure. If each group was composed of five teams, and there was a final “placement” game between equally ranked teams of each pool, then each team would play exactly five games like the current Six Nations tournament, therefore not prolonging the international window. This would, however, mean to give up the Six Nations brand to something new, and this type of operations don’t usually sell well among the old school rugby crowd, very attached to traditions. Nevertheless, it would mean including four extra teams in the competition. Many people think that South Africa should be included in these four, but I actually think it should be Rugby Europe Teams who should get access. The Six Nations is a northern hemisphere competition and it should seek growth in its inland first, before seeking new opponents 13 hours of flight away. Moreover, South Africa already has the Rugby Championship as international tournament, which should adopt a similar strategy to account for the growth of Japan, Fiji and other teams of the pacific area. The main issue with this type of change is always on the economic side: as many have pointed out on a lively Reddit discussion that I started, weaker opponents bring less people to the stadium to support their Tier 1 team. This turns into less profit, something nobody wants. If nothing changes, however, the risk is that the interest in rugby will stay confined into a few places, therefore giving up a very large and relatively unexplored market.
In conclusion: cooperation is the way
Let’s not fight each other for the one spot at the big fish table. We should cooperate towards a more inclusive formula in the European rugby landscape. No one wants to see Georgia excluded forever from games that they earned the right to play. No one should want Italy out just because “they had the chance and they didn’t win anything”. No one, finally, should want to keep out T2 teams from any competition because they’re not good enough. Growth comes from confrontation, game time, exchange of knowledge. Not from envy, gatekeeping strategies, and declarations from a high horse. Six Nations teams are in the unique spot of having the wealth to make European rugby grow and become more inclusive of tier 2 teams. It is mostly in their hands to make this happen. Let’s hope that they see value in it.