There are two separate forces shaping a new future for European rugby. The first is that the Six Nations, is in danger of becoming stale – a fact admitted by the tournament’s top brass following the introduction of a bonus point scoring system for this year’s tournament. There are less tries, longer scrummaging time and more strategic kicking than in the more exhilarating Rugby Championship, which produced all four of 2015’s World Cup semifinalists. The second factor is that beyond the select group of powerful and wealthy unions that have traditionally dominated the game, rugby has never been as competitive or as popular.
Along with a number of other leading voices in the game, I believe that it is time for rugby to strip away with the elitist ring fencing of its showcase tournaments and embrace the globalization of this fantastic sport. Allowing other countries to compete against the best is not only good for both lower ranked teams and their devout fans, but also opens up huge commercial opportunities for the established nations.
Rugby is changing, and fast. 2015 saw Japan overcome the Springboks, last year we witnessed the advent of professionalism in the USA, and long-term outsiders such as Argentina now rank among the best teams in the world. Even The Economist has weighed in on the debate about the future of the rugby, arguing in an article last year that the Anglo-centric mindset of the sports power brokers inhibits its growth. It wrote that, ‘Georgia is one of the few serious rugby-playing nations that has not been colonized by the British at some point in its history; the sport’s imperial roots are unlikely to help broaden its global appeal’.
Unsurprisingly, it is Georgia that is currently at the focus of the sport’s politics. This small nation of just four million people, nestled on the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, and relatively poor by European standards, is suddenly the talk of the town. Haven gained independence in 1991, they won their first European Nations Cup just ten years later. Their debut appearance at the World Cup in 2003 was winless, but they have markedly improved: wins over Tonga and Namibia in the last World Cup were rewarded with automatic qualification to Japan in 2019.
The Six Nations needs to expand, for its own good as well as the good of rugby throughout the continent. However, last week the Six Nations Chief Executive John Feehan ruled out any changes to the tournament in the short to medium term, despite Georgia placing higher in the world rankings than Italy. Octavian Morariu, the President of Rugby Europe, points out that the closed nature of international rugby means that it is the only Olympic event without a European championship open to all countries based on on-field performance. An unworthy accolade indeed.
So where do Georgia go from here? A tour to the South Sea Islands last summer saw the Lelos go unbeaten, with a victory over Fiji meaning that they have now beaten every single country in rugby’s Tier Two. Champions in eight of the last nine European Nations Cup – think of it as a Six Nations ‘B’ division, although it is a colorful and competitive tournament in its own right – they enter this year’s competition as firm favorites. Expect another sellout crowd when they take on Russia in their last home game. Tbilisi’s ultra-modern Dinamo Arena regularly fills every single one of its 55,000 seats when the Russians arrive for a game loaded with cultural and political symbolism, perhaps more so than any other in world rugby.
Georgia now face a glass ceiling. They are too good for their current opponents, yet those who would offer a decent match up are not willing to play them. Admittedly, Georgia have travelled to both Ireland and Scotland in recent years, and have been beaten convincingly both times, but regular fixtures would raise their game no-end.
However, matches against Tier 1 nations are hard to come by. Being a decent side is not enough to book oneself a fixture against England at Twickenham or to host Australia while they tour, you also have to be a fashionable country (something that Georgia is not) that can provide short term financial reward to your competitors (which it cannot do). Hence why Wales toured Japan in 2013, and Scotland toured the USA and Canada a year later, yet they continually overlook arguably more competitive sides from the East of Europe.
However, I hesitate to suggest that merely throwing Georgia into the current Six Nations will be a good idea. The same was done to Italy, well before it had the necessary structure in place to continue to challenge high ranked teams. I recommend that Georgia join an expanded Seven Nations tournament in 2021 (mid-way between the next two world cups) and in the meantime focus on growing their game from its amateur base all the way up to its professional level.
For me, a seven team tournament is the ideal solution. Its format would allow the tournament to remain a seven week long affair, so it does not eat anymore into the current rugby calendar. It creates just one extra game per team, so minimizes the danger to player welfare, and also provides each team with a much needed bye-week. Furthermore, it also solves the imbalance with the uneven number of home and away fixtures that each team currently has.
Promotion and relegation must be introduced for the sake of meritocracy, however it would also provide added entertainment towards the bottom of the table, typically full of dead rubbers. It also has the added benefit of getting fans interested in second tier fixtures involving the likes of Spain and Russia, so to see which team your own nation will be playing in next year’s edition.
The benefits go both ways. Commercially, the expanded tournament provides another match day to sell tickets, another market to sell your product to, and more incentive for sponsorship in lower ranked countries hoping to break it into the big time.
So, here is my five point plan for getting Georgian rugby up to Six Nations standard, and eventually in the competition:
- The domestic league needs to go fully professional. Athletes thrive in an environment play sport as their profession. Furthermore, best teams should play in the European Cups. Playing well known clubs from abroad will give the domestic game a massive boost.
- The Georgian U20 team should join the U20 Six Nations immediately. The benefits of this to the players coming through the ranks are obvious, yet it also allows the seven-team tournament format to be trialed.
- Grassroots rugby needs to greatly grow in Georgia. Currently, there are just 12,000 registered players in Georgia. Wales, with a similar sized population, has over 80,000. Introducing rugby into the school curriculum would help, as would the establishment of a university league system.
- The Georgian Rugby Union, with the help of World Rugby, should start a drive to recruit and train more coaches, referees, and volunteers. The passion for rugby of coaches needs to be matched with knowledge and expertise, well taught referees will ensure that the game is being played properly, while volunteers at local clubs create a strong and important bond between the community and the sport.
- Most importantly, the national team needs to play more fixtures against top tier opposition. Touring southern hemisphere sides need to visit in the autumn. World Cup warm up matches for 2019 are a great opportunity for Six Nations side to test their squads, and pitting them against the likes of Georgia will be invaluable for both sides. Perhaps when the Lions go to South Africa in 2021, a depleted country from the home nations could play them in three tests. Really, any exposure to high level opposition will be invaluable.
Rugby is on the verge of exploding into a truly global sport. The successful Sevens tournament at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics highlighted its potential to engage with latent fans. To continue growing the sport, teams such as Georgia need to be rewarded for their significant accomplishments. If managed correctly, a Seven Nations tournament would be the perfect way to do this, and would prove a success for all parties involved.