There have been questions aplenty over the last year about how to give Georgia more exposure to Tier 1 rugby.
The main suggestions seem to be 6 Nations promotion/relegation OR expanding the current 6 Nations to 7. I have been thinking for a while that neither of these solutions work in terms of pleasing all parties.
My suggestion – feel free to tear it to pieces, laud it with praise, or otherwise – is to hold a European Championship once every 4 years in between Rugby World Cups. Here’s how I think it could work…
Who would play and in what format?
If you look at the current state of European rugby, there are 8 teams who would be reasonably competitive against each other: 6 Nations plus Georgia and Romania.
‘Hold on’, I hear you say, ‘Romania? I thought we were talking about Georgia here?’ Herein lies some of the problem with expanding the 6 Nations to 7; how long will it be before we need to expand it again to include another of Europe’s up and coming teams?
Those of you who are up to date on your Rugby Europe Championship (6 Nations B as it were) will know that the most recent champions are actually Romania. They beat Georgia in this year’s competition and they also dispatched Samoa as recently as the Autumn Internationals. But the reality is, Georgia and Romania are not the only countries in Europe where rugby is on the rise.
Take a look at the 25,000 crowd that appeared at the Spanish Copa del Rey rugby final last year. Or have a look at Russian club side Krasny Yar’s recent defeat of Stade Francais in the European Challenge Cup. Also, both Spain and Russia have beaten Rugby World Cup qualifier Namibia this year; they are arguably both better than a current World Cup team!
Rugby in Europe is on the verge of something big and there needs to be a system in place to accommodate this growth.
Expansion = Devaluation
I believe that adding these teams to an expanded 6 Nations would devalue the current product. However, if you made a separate tournament which gives them a chance to develop and catch up to the big boys, it would be massively beneficial for European rugby in the long term. So I propose:
- 12 teams (6 Nations plus Rugby Europe Championship)
- 4 groups of 3
- The top team in each group goes into ‘Championship’ semi-finals, 2nd place teams go into ‘Plate’ semis, 3rd place teams go into ‘Bowl’ semis.
Each team would play 4 games overall (based on current world rankings, please do not take offence if you think your team would do better!):
Player welfare and drubbings
This structure wouldn’t be much of strain on player welfare as 4 games per team is virtually equivalent to a summer tour.
My only concern is over some of the 6 Nations teams handing out drubbings to the lower lights of the European game. You would hope that in 4 years’ time the teams from Germany and Belgium would be somewhat more competitive. Given the upward trajectory of rugby in Europe and the renewed interest in rugby due to Olympic inclusion, there should be improvements, but still, concerns remain.
When and where would you play it?
In terms of the when, how about having it in between Rugby World Cups?
The 1st one being in 2021, which is in 4 years’ time. This four-yearly cycle has the added bonus of not clashing with the football (soccer) World Cup or the Euros. It would give European sports fans a great international competition to get behind that could potentially – a fair few years down the line – make rugby massive in Europe.
Fitting into the calendar
Perhaps more of an important question though is, how would you fit it into rugby’s already crowded calendar?
At a time when player welfare and fixture overload is such a pertinent issue, this is perhaps the key obstacle to a tournament of this kind. I propose two potential timeslots in the current rugby calendar: replacing the summer tour once every 4 years OR having a European Rugby Championship in place of the 6 Nations once every 4 years.
My preferred option is the former, but if you were to hold the first one in 2021, this would clash with the Lions tour. Lions tours are one of the crown jewels in the rugby calendar, so I think it’s essential to protect them at all costs. So, to avoid a clash with a European Championship in 2021, why not move the Lions tours forward one year? This means that the next tour to South Africa would be in 2020.
Therefore, the European Rugby Championship wouldn’t clash with any major football (soccer) tournaments. This is essential as it means that European sports fans would really get behind it and potentially make it into a huge event.
If this is impossible, there is also the 2nd option of replacing the 6 Nations in February once every 4 years. This is not my preferred solution as the 6 Nations is already an incredibly successful product (highest average attendance of any international sporting competition in the world, along with a plethora of other healthy statistics). But it is useful to consider it as another alternative to the summer test window.
Where would you hold it?
Well, the prime candidate for hosting, I would suggest, is Ireland after recently being spurned for the Rugby World Cup. I’m sure they would host a great competition and they will be desperate to prove to the rugby community that they would have hosted a fantastic World Cup if they had been chosen for 2023. After that, other European nations could bid for the tournament and it would perhaps give those countries who would be unlikely to host the World Cup a chance to hold an international rugby tournament.
I’m sure that a European Rugby Championship would be great for the development of international rugby and would capture the imagination of those European rugby countries on the verge of something big in the global game.
As far as World Rugby is concerned, surely they would be salivating at the prospect of having rugby as a popular sport in big European economies like Germany, Russia and Spain? I can’t really see any drawbacks at the moment, but I’d love to hear any feedback on the idea, so please don’t hold back in the comments below.
Author: George Wood
I am, and have always been, obsessed by sports. I have a particular interest in the development of rugby globally and spend hours watching, researching and reading about obscure rugby news and games from around the world.
I previously had a 6 year stint in China, where I set up an expat football team in Wuhan. I now reside in London, working as a statistical analyst, spending large amounts of my free time watching sports with my wife.
More of my rugby thoughts on Twitter @GeorgeWood9187