Biennial global competition the focus, not South Africa joining Six Nations

There’s no desire among the current six unions to even conduct feasibility studies

Despite reports emanating from Australia that South Africa are exploring the possibility of joining the Six Nations after 2025, the prospects of this happening by then or indeed at any time in the distant future remains as remote as has ever been the case.

While the South African Rugby Union have sounded out the Six Nations about the possibility of them joining the oldest annual international competition in the world and thus leaving the Rugby Championship, there is still no desire among the current six unions to even conduct feasibility studies into such an eventuality.

Their priority remains a global season and a biennial international competition in non-World Cup and non-Lions years. Last month, by which stage the SARU had already made their soundings, the Six Nations chief executive, Ben Morel, said he was “extremely cautious” about expansion.

Nothing, bar an agreement among the Six Nations and Rugby Championship countries to further explore a biennial international competition, has changed in the interim.


Furthermore, for South Africa to be added to the Six Nations, or to replace any of the existing countries, would require unanimous approval and agreement among all six unions and federations. That is not even on their agenda and for all the criticisms of Italy’s value to the tournament after last week’s 34th defeat in succession, the Azzurri cannot be simply booted out, and certainly not without a lengthy period of notice.

As an aside, although CVC have owned a 14 per cent stake in the Six Nations since 2021, as well as stakes in the United Rugby Championship and Premiership, it would not be their decision.

It’s true that South Africa have become more closely aligned with northern hemisphere rugby through their four Super Rugby franchises, the Bulls, Sharks, Stormers and Lions, relocating to the URC. But this has no bearing on the Six Nations, an invitational tournament, which has historically been an exclusively European competition.

Wheels of change

However, it’s also worth noting that ever since France were first admitted to what had been the Home Nations Championship in 1910 (and re-admitted in 1947) to what became the Five Nations Championship, there has only been one addition in the ensuing 112 years, namely Italy. That gives an indication as to how swiftly the wheels of change move in this competition.

Expanding the competition to incorporate South Africa in a ‘Seven Nations Championship’ would undermine much of what the Six Nations aspires to be, ie an annual European international tournament, while causing upheaval to the northern-southern hemisphere balance of the global game.

Logistically, it would also be hugely challenging to accommodate South Africa (or anyone else) in a putative Seven Nations, not least in finding dates in the annual calendar for six more matches while presumably having wasteful ‘bye’ weekends for each country given an uneven number.

The latest reports speculating on the possibility of South Africa relocating to the Six Nations follow from the comment by Brendan Morris, the chief executive of the southern hemisphere governing body Sanzaar, that the SARU are exploring their options.

“They (South Africa) did put us on notice they were exploring their options - that was well before Christmas,” said Morris. “We’ve got a number of international and local broadcast deals that are extended to 2025. There was never any cause for alarm that we were never going to meet those obligations.

“We’re coming out of the worst three years in living memory of financial impact. Everybody has to do their due diligence in exploring what competitions to be involved in, and what provides the best opportunity for the best commercial outcome.”

Representatives of the 10 unions or federations in the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship are due to meet next month to further explore plans for a biennial world competition and this latest speculation regarding South Africa may even give those talks additional impetus.

Along the lines of the proposed World Nations Championship which World Rugby outlined in 2019 before the project was abandoned, it would see the Six Nations and Rugby Championship remain in situ, and ditto the July and November windows. However instead of touring one country in July, as Ireland are doing this year, teams from the Six Nations would play three Tests in different countries during the summer, as teams from the southern hemisphere would continue to do in November.

Grand final

Japan and Fiji are being mooted as the two countries to be added to the 12-team competition. The last weekend in November would then be reserved for a grand final between the top two teams over the course of the 11 calendar games. World Rugby are acting more as facilitators as the Six Nations and Sanzaar take the lead in devising the competition, and there is optimism that it can come into being in 2024.

Were that to come to pass, then this would make it even more unlikely that South Africa would be invited into the Six Nations, whether as replacements for Italy or as a seventh country. Such a development would logistically unhinge a biennial global competition in the framework now being devised.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times