In July, the New Zealand team travelled to Apia to play their Pacific neighbours Samoa. To many followers of rugby this non-competitive, exhibition match may have otherwise seemed like just an ordinary match between two rugby-mad nations. However the meeting at Apia Park was in fact an historic occasion as this was the first time, since the establishment of the Western Samoan team back in 1924, that New Zealand had played in the Samoans’ backyard.
Sadly, international sides such as New Zealand and other ‘first division’ international teams are likely to pass over opportunities to play games, home or away, against the likes of Samoa because such games lack commercial value.
Argentina’s third place finish at the 2007 Rugby World Cup put pressure on global rugby institutions to allow the South American side to participate in the Southern Hemisphere’s Tri Nations Championship. In 2012 Argentina were finally admitted to the reformed Rugby Championship alongside New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. This was undoubtedly a positive step forward. The Pumas had earned their right to compete in a regular tournament against some of the world’s leading international sides. Yet more could, and should be done, to try and help develop other national teams in other parts of the world.
A welcome move would be for the so-called ‘top tier’ or first division international teams (generally considered to be the ten countries which participate in either the Six Nations and Rugby Championship) to play more games against second tier sides such as Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, Japan, Canada, USA, Georgia and Romania. At present, the international rugby calendar follows a predictable format. In every non-World Cup year the Northern Hemisphere giants head south to play a series of tests against South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, or Argentina. During the autumn these Southern Hemisphere sides tour Britain and Ireland, France and Italy.
When travelling north or south of the equator, Tier 1 nations’ tours could include a ‘stop off’ en route in say, Bucharest, Vancouver or Suva. These games could be coordinated so as to ensure that each of these aforementioned second tier nations, and possibly a few more not mentioned here, get to play at least two games a year, one in the summer and one in the autumn/winter, against first tier Northern and Southern Hemisphere teams.
The current Six Nations format could be reformed so as to give another European country the opportunity to participate in the tournament. This could be done by permanently expanding the number of countries to seven, or through a promotion and relegation system between the Six Nations and the European Nations Cup (effectively the second division Six Nations) which this season was contested by Georgia, Romania, Spain, Portugal, Russia and Germany.
The monthly magazine Rugby World has suggested that a play-off system could operate between the two competitions whereby the team which finishes last in the Six Nations would play the European Nations Cup’s champion, home and away, to contest a place in the following season’s Six Nations. The losing side would play in the European Nations Cup for the following season.
If European Rugby authorities were to indefinitely expand the tournament to seven then Georgia has made the best case to be included as the seventh nation. The ‘Lelos’, as they are known, have dominated the Europe’s second tier competition, winning eight tournaments since its inception in 2000, twice as many as their nearest rival, Romania. Georgia is currently playing in their fourth consecutive World Cup and Georgian players have featured regularly in high-level club competitions. Last year, seven members of the international squad were playing in the Southern Hemisphere’s Super 15 Competition whereas others ply their trade in professional French club sides such as Toulon and Montpellier. Captain Mamuka Gorgodze was selected as Best Foreign Player in the Super 15 in 2011.
There might be doubts over whether the Lelos are ‘ready’ to compete alongside the original six teams, and if they were to be included then would they have little hope of becoming more than the whipping boys of the tournament? While Georgia may suffer some heavy defeats along the way, to think that they will get whacked in every game is rather presumptuous. At the 2007 World Cup Georgia came within (literally) inches of defeating Ireland and have run Italy close before when the sides have met.
Georgian rugby can only benefit from playing in a more competitive, higher quality competition against Europe’s top international sides on a regular basis. Nobody would argue that Italian rugby has regressed following 16 seasons of playing Six Nations rugby or that Argentinian rugby has been hindered by the expansion of the Tri Nations three years ago.
Georgia’s dominance in the European Nations Cup over the last decade illustrates that they are worthy and also ‘ready’ to become the seventh member of a new Seven Nations tournament. If both national and world rugby institutions are truly committed to strengthening and developing the game in other parts of the world then they should embrace change. The surest way to do this is by arranging more regular test matches between first and second tier nations and by opening the door for Georgia to join Europe’s elite.