After shipping 58 points against Ireland this weekend, it is hard to justify Italy’s continued inclusion in the Six Nations without visible signs of improvement. Injuries have played a role in the recent struggles of the Italians, but their problems go much deeper than this.
Since their induction into the Six Nations in 2000, Italy have finished last on eleven out of the seventeen championships they have been involved in. It is not just the Six Nations where they have struggled however, as the Italians are also still yet to make it out of the pool stages of a Rugby World Cup despite regular international experience in the Six Nations through four World Cup cycles.
Current coach Jacques Brunel will be stepping down after the Six Nations with a win percentage of just 24.4%. This is frankly unacceptable for any tier one nation, even if it does show an improvement on previous incumbent Nick Mallett’s 21.4% ratio. This has been a stark fall off in performance compared to earlier coaches John Kirwan (31.3%) and Pierre Berbizier (40%) suggesting that if anything, Italian rugby is going backwards.
Unfortunately it doesn’t do anyone any favours when Italy continue to be the whipping boys of the Six Nations. Opponents gain little other than a ridiculous points haul, whilst it is hardly encouraging for the Italian coaches and players. Equally, whilst fans have been clamouring for more action in the Six Nations – a victory as one-sided as Ireland’s 58-15 point victory over the Italians this weekend doesn’t exactly make for great viewing.
Whilst some fans have been quick to point at the continued struggles of the Scotland side in the Six Nations, the facts don’t quite stack up as their current coach Vern Cotter currently has a 48% win ration (almost twice that of Italy under Jacques Brunel). There has also been a clear progression with Scotland over the last couple of years as they have developed their game and are now challenging the top sides in the world on a regular basis.
You also only have to look to Argentina to see the way a developing rugby nation should be progressing. Italy have been given the same foot up in terms of having both their national side, and their club side(s) permitted entry into the top competitions around. However, whilst Argentina are now beginning to seriously challenge on both the international and domestic front, the Italians are continuing to prop up both the Six Nations and Pro12 tables.
Given the improving form of sides like Georgia and Romania, it is becoming increasingly difficult to justify Italy’s continued protection as part of European rugby’s elite. This is not to say there is a need for a knee jerk reaction, but rather a consideration of the best move forwards for both the Six Nations and the Italians. It may therefore be the right time to begin considering the introduction of promotion and relegation to the competition.
This does not have to be an immediate possibility, but more a planned progression in the build up to the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Equally, relegation doesn’t have to be a foregone conclusion, instead there could be a play-off game between the side going down, and the one potentially coming up. This would at least give the incumbent Six Nations side a final chance to fight for their place, whilst giving a contender experience of additional competition against a Tier 1 nation.
Although there is no guarantee that the side going down would be Italy, recent trends would suggest they are the most likely contender. This would therefore force Italian Rugby Union to begin taking their national sides development more seriously. This way promotion and relegation could be introduced in 2019 so the Italians have time to begin implementing better youth structures, whilst also getting their house in order.
Whatever the future holds though, the Six Nations cannot continue to carry a side performing as poorly as Italy given the way it cheapens the competition.