From getting trounced 84-6 to England at the 2003 World Cup, rugby minnows Georgia have fought tooth and nail to become a serious rugby nation. Georgia managed to automatically qualify for this year’s World Cup after victories against Tonga and Namibia in the 2015 edition, they developed their first world class player in Mamuka Gorgodze, and even climbed to 13th in the Rugby World rankings. Despite this, 6 Nations tournament chief Ben Morel claimed that “relegation is absolutely not on the agenda”, effectively closing the door on Georgia, or any aspiring European nation to join the flagship tournament.
The explanation from Morel seems short-sighted as he claims, “in order to even start discussing relegation you need to be able to be relegated to some sustainable league or property and we are far from that”. Whilst some nations in the division below get very low attendances, both Georgia and Russia have hosted games with over 30,000 fans in attendance. Additionally, surely the way to gain the division below is far more investment and growth is a promotion/relegation playoff to the big league. That is a prize that will attract the attention of fans and investors alike.
There is obviously a concern of what happens to Italian Rugby if they got relegated, but the flip side is the potential rugby boom in a country that gets promoted. Imagine the growth of the sport if a country like Germany earned a spot in a 6 Nations, and had their matches televised in a country with countless potential big sponsors. Across different leagues in various sport, the inevitable truth is that relegated teams suffer great losses, but promoted teams experience dramatic growth. That is meritocracy. We must also remember that when teams get relegated, it forces them to re-evaluate their structures, and create more sustainable foundations. You only have to look at formerly relegated Gallagher Premiership teams (such as Northampton and Harlequins) who bounced back much stronger on their return.
Whilst the news has been met with much criticism from fans, it must be put into perspective. Prior to the first round of the 6 Nations, Italy were two places behind Georgia in the IRB world rankings, but this is largely because Italy face top opposition in the majority of their fixtures, whilst Georgia’s points can be propped up with games against the likes of Germany and Belgium. Additionally, Georgia had the opportunity to face Italy in the recent Autumn internationals and were evidently outplayed. They had their chance to make their case, and unfortunately blew it.
However, the main reason promotion/relegation in the 6 Nations won’t occur is because the tournament isn’t a European championship ran by the IRB. It’s an invitational tournament. This not only means that the current members will most likely stifle promotion/relegation to cover their own backs, but also means that money could be a motive. Why would Ben Morel and other stakeholders want to risk Italy getting relegated for a country like Georgia, whose GDP per capita is over seven times less? Why would they want a country like Georgia included when direct flights to the capital Tblisi from London are relatively scarce? Perhaps it is wrong to assume ill motives from Ben Morel, but with invitational tournaments, it at least begs the question as to whether money, convenience, or self-interests are valued over meritocracy and the growth of the game.
Written by Connor Dickins