Whilst there has been talk of expanding the Six Nations and Rugby Championship, the practicalities don’t make this a particularly viable option right now.
Particularly in Europe, there simply isn’t enough time in the season for the Six Nations to be extended to seven or even eight teams to accommodate the likes of Georgia or Romania. The other option that has been touted is a promotion and relegation system for teams in Europe, which whilst in principle works, could have serious knock on consequences.
Promotion to the Six Nations would obviously be a huge boost for a side like Georgia, however the reality is that the knock-on effects for teams like Scotland or Italy are too easily overlooked. Particularly in Italy, rugby still remains a minority sport, and an absence from the Six Nations could seriously damage the growth of the game on the continent.
Equally, in the Rugby Championship the logistics already make fixtures a nightmare without having to include trips to locations like Japan and North America. Whilst this is obviously an easier fix, it simply does not make sense at this stage given the tournament has already shifted to include Argentina.
The simple answer seems to be regional tournaments every four years in the gaps between world cups, similar to how football has various continental tournaments such as the Euros. This would mean Tier 2 nations being exposed to Tier 1 level competition at least every two years, rather than the current four year wait between World Cups.
In Europe, it’s easy to see how two groups of five could be formed with the likes of Georgia, Romania, Spain and Russia joining the current Six Nations sides. The top two in each group would then move on to the semi finals. This option also leaves plenty of room for expansion as other teams like Germany and Portugal begin to challenge on a regular basis.
Whilst many may argue that the Lions tours will put a stop to such an idea before it even begins, that is actually the beauty of this idea. Home nations sides will field slightly weakened sides whilst their top players are touring with the Lions, thereby increasing the competitiveness of the tournament whilst also giving fringe players a chance to stake a claim.
The home nations tour during a Lions series anyway so it’s not like they are unaccustomed to playing with slightly weakened sides. Obviously, over time this may need to change with either the Lions tour or European Championship shifting by a year so the two can be accommodated without impacting one another.
A similar format could also be employed for Rugby Championship sides, although they may need to extend the format to three groups in order to provide enough places. In this instance the top side in each group goes into the semis along with the best placed runner up. This would again give teams outside of the World Cup the opportunity to play in a major international.
To me, this seems like a no brainer. Tier 2 nations are given more opportunity to ‘dine at the top table’ as it were, whilst Tier 1 sides are able to continue with their current annual competitions. It would also give Tier 2 nations the opportunity to host international tournaments without the full commitment of staging a World Cup, thereby further increasing local interest.