With all the talk of an expanded Six Nations tournament or promotion and relegation, could a development tournament be the right place to start?
Given Italy’s frankly abysmal performances in this year’s Six Nations, many fans and pundits alike have called for the introduction of promotion and relegation. This is on the back of Georgia’s impressive World Cup display that led to them attracting a crowd of around 55,000 for the final game of the second tier Six Nations in Tbilisi last weekend. Elsewhere, others have called for the Six Nations to simply be expanded to accommodate the Georgians and potentially even the Romanians.
Whilst these options sound ideal in theory, in practice there are a whole number of hurdles that ensure we’re unlikely to see a change, at least in the short-term. An alternative proposal however would be to focus on a development tournament, similar to the Six Nations that would be a proving ground for the likes of Georgia and Romania, whilst providing tier one nations the opportunity to develop fringe players.
The new tournament would either run instead of the current second tier Six Nations, or ideally when the Tier 1 nations head to the Southern Hemisphere in June for their summer tours. The tournament would contain the full Georgian and Romanian teams, in addition to the England Saxons, Irish Wolfhounds, and any other development teams the other Six Nations competitors can muster, thereby ensuring clubs weren’t without their fringe players during the season proper.
Depending on the number of teams available, the tournament could either be run as a knockout competition, or as a league table similar to the Six Nations. Not only would it help generate interest in Georgia and Romania where rugby is growing, but fans of teams such as Ireland and England would no doubt have a vested interest as they would be keen to see how their sides youth and fringe players get on against a competitive opponent.
The problem in recent years has been that the development teams have been used to rehab first teamers and give predominantly fringe players an opportunity at some game time. This tournament would instead allow teams like England and Ireland to field proper development sides over the summer with a view to giving the top performers some game time with their elite squads during the Autumn Internationals later this year.
This would give Ireland the chance to trial players like Garry Ringrose and Stuart McCloskey, whilst England could take a look at the likes of Jack Clifford and Luke Cowan-Dickie against top quality opponents. This would also give teams like Georgia the opportunity to test themselves against players who are regulars in the Premiership, Pro12 and European cups. Although it may not be top quality internationals, it still provides an ideal proving ground.
If played over the summer, it would also ensure sides have a full release of players so they will be at full strength. Should we find that say Georgia continue to dominate the development tournament for several years, then it adds weight to the argument for Six Nations expansion. Not only this, but it would provide developing teams with an additional revenue stream that they can use to further develop the game at home.