Tipping Point: Georgia should be on Six Nations radar
Italy continue to feel cosy club’s embrace while Europe’s sixth best team is isolated
Georgia take on USA last November at Mikheil Meskhi Stadium in Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo: Levan Verdzeuli/Getty Images
On Saturday, a few hours before Ireland beat the seventh best team in Europe by 37 points, the sixth best stuffed Belgium 49-0. Even those unable to distinguish their dump tackles from a drift defence can spot the discrepancy – Europe’s Six Nations doesn’t include the six best teams.
You can ponder whether or not Georgia really is in Europe, or how many of us could precisely point out its location on a globe. But it’s unarguable according to World Rugby rankings that this tiny nation of 3.7 million people at the bottom of the Caucasus are better than Italy.
Considering how mediocre the Italian team is right now that might not be a big boast. But this superiority is no blip either.
Georgia have dominated the second-tier Rugby Europe Championship for years. Their weekend rout suggests it will be business as usual again in 2018. But it’s not just the memory of Ireland’s close shave at the 2007 World Cup which shows how competitive Georgia can be against the first tier.
Two wins at the last World Cup guaranteed qualification for the next one in Japan. In November Wales were pushed hard for a 13-6 win in Cardiff. The majority of Georgia’s national team play professionally in France. These are not mugs.
What’s more, Georgians love rugby, as in properly get it. The game is rooted in the public consciousness there to an extent perhaps only really replicated in the Northern Hemisphere in Wales.
The ancient field game of ‘Lelo’ consisted of villages using a ball as an excuse to fight each other before plonking it in the other’s territory. It’s a concept hardly a million miles from indigenous pursuits ingrained into our own national marrow.
Rugby elsewhere might have been mainly confined to the red bits of old imperial maps but Georgians played with a passion that had nothing to do with school ties and everything to do with actual relevance.
Even during the Soviet Union era, including the psychotic reign of the country’s most famous nut-job, Stalin, this rugby outpost survived. Since independence it has thrived. And for years it has looked west, desperate to climb over the wall into the Six Nations.
The case for inclusion is convincing in sporting terms. They’re capable of giving any team a game, at least as much as Italy are. And a look at Argentina’s progress since the Tri-Nations was expanded indicates how proper competition will improve Georgia faster than beating the snot out of Belgium.
Then there’s World Rugby’s brief to promote and expand the game worldwide: what better illustration of global ambition than spreading Webb Ellis’s light to the edge of the Black Sea.
Except the problem is Six Nations business has nothing to do with sport. The Six Nations is a commercial club. And like every clubhouse it’s just as important who is kept out as who is allowed in.
So it’s difficult not to believe Georgia’s problem is that it simply isn’t rich enough. It’s a piddling economy in an obscure part of Russia’s backyard and probably the only one anxious to visit it is Putin.
Everyone accepts most Italians don’t give a fiddlers about rugby. Why would they when they have football and Ferrari. But Italy is a desirable market and Rome’s romance is irresistible: Tbilisi just sounds far away.
So Italy continues to feel the Six Nations’ cosy, nurturing embrace while little Georgia is left with platitudinous waffle about inclusion, bored out of its wits in rugby’s special needs class because it isn’t rich or powerful enough to get out.
The Six Nations has unequivocally stated it is not its function to develop the game elsewhere. It’s a statement which contains the smugness of a club secretary advising an undesirable they might feel more comfortable somewhere else.
Adding Georgia and making it a seven-nations tournament isn’t a runner. There’s neither the inclination or the time to do so. But the idea of promotion and relegation to and from the Six Nations needs to be properly addressed and not just in terms of revenue.
Everyone seems to tut-tut it financially since all of the Six Nations stand to lose money, especially the one relegated.
Italy mightn’t really care but the Scots were ropey for a long while there and it certainly would be a bid deal there. And the merde really would hit the fan if French fortunes continue to disintegrate to the extent they have.
So it’s undoubtedly much easier for a lot of people, including the IRFU’s old-school tie Tories, to conserve things as they are.
Except stagnancy is ultimately no good to anyone. Italy’s whipping boys are all but certain to again finish bottom of the Six Nations pile. That doesn’t benefit anyone, especially the Italians. Their final three matches are as meaningless as they are inconsequential.
It certainly doesn’t benefit the Six Nations. Ultimately sport has to have consequences or customers, sorry, fans, start to ask what’s the point. Italy’s season is already effectively over, their remaining games just academic exercises in points difference.
There’s no competitive urgency in that and there’s a trick being missed here. The prospect of promotion and relegation, perhaps a two-legged play-off between the bottom Six Nations side and the Rugby Europe champions, mightn’t make pretty viewing. But it would be sure be competitive.
It would live up to official verbiage about developing the game too, as well as introducing a season-long narrative that benefits everyone and makes sporting sense by having the six best teams actually play each other. Apart from all that it would be the right and fair thing to do.
This Saturday Georgia play Germany in the Rugby Europe Championship. The Germans were beaten 85-6 by Romania at the weekend. Give Germany Georgia’s rugby profile though and it’s hard not to think their application for promotion to the Six Nations would have been long since approved.