The Telegraph: Open up the Six Nations and let Georgia in


Open up the Six Nations and let Georgia in

By Oliver Brown


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Play-off between European Nations Cup winners and the wooden spoon side for a place at the top table would end the cosy, closed shop and help the aim to globalise the game.


Quietly, almost imperceptibly, Georgia vaulted above Italy in rugby’s world rankings this week. And quite right, too, given that Jacques Brunel’s Azzurri seem to be receding faster than some galaxies, while the sleeping giants of the Caucasus have just finished top of the European Nations Cup table for the fifth consecutive season. But there is still less of a chance of Georgia gatecrashing the Six Nations jamboree than of Eddie Butler being able to make even a halfway decent attempt at pronouncing Merab Kvirikashvili’s name.


The reason for their exile has nothing to do with rugby. Georgia have not lost a game in their second-tier Nations Cup for three years, and harbour grand designs of reaching a first World Cup quarter-final this autumn. They remain excluded not because of a failure to be considered European enough, when 17 members of their 27-man squad ply their trade in France. Instead, their inability to supplant Italy at the Six Nations table is based solely on questions of commerce and culture. Ultimately, it is far more desirable for the average fan to be guaranteed a weekend’s drinking by the Trevi Fountain every couple of years than it is to seek out soup and dumplings in the backstreets of Tbilisi.


To argue, as many opponents to change in the Six Nations do, that Georgia would somehow dilute the sanctity of the competition is sophistry. For all the wonderful, tumultuous drama of the final three games last Saturday,  this is not a tournament governed by the quality of play. The staggered scheduling at the weekend was itself a made-for-television bonanza, while every other facet of this seven-week carnival has been leapt upon by a slavering band of travel operators, brand managers and PR agencies. Even the words 'Carry them home’, England’s Twickenham slogan, have been turned into a trendy hashtag. As such, Georgia are kept outside the tent by an idle preconception that they would not enhance the image of the dreaded 'product’.


No one is suggesting that they should usurp Italy or, say, Scotland for any determined length of time. But the moment has come to give the Georgians an opportunity, to help end the schism between Europe’s established rugby powers and the poor relations in 'Tier Two’, by creating a two-legged play-off system. It is not unreasonable to venture that a contest between Georgia, on the back of a second successive Nations Cup grand slam, and Scotland, who have finished in the bottom two in eight of the past nine Six Nations, would be a legitimate fixture to decide the line-up for next year.


For anybody worried about replicating the furious intensity of the 2015 denouement, it is likely that, in the same set of circumstances, the deciding round of matches would only improve. Italy and Scotland, if drawn into duels to protect their status among the elite, would never countenance the type of second-half capitulations we witnessed this year. Similarly, France, the only underdogs to offer true resistance with that astonishing piece of theatre at Twickenham, would be competing for far more than the job security of head coach Philippe Saint-André. They would, considering they received the wooden spoon as recently as 2013, be fighting for their very future.


There is a manifest desire in Georgia to be taken seriously by the big boys. When the team took on the Six Nations champions Ireland in Dublin last November, as part of the official sequence of autumn internationals, president Giorgi Margvelashvili spoke to the players in the Aviva Stadium dressing room, telling him he was proud of what they had achieved and how significant their role would become as national ambassadors. They lost 49-7, but had run the Irish famously close in a 14-10 defeat in Bordeaux at the 2007 World Cup. They are recognised by World Rugby as a “high-performance team”, and the sense mounts that they have outgrown the tinpot sideshow of the Nations Cup. So long as they can bridge the gap between their ferocious pack and relatively novice back division, they merit a much loftier stage on which to prove their mettle.


However, most of the Six Nations club, Ireland excepted, will not hear of it. They refuse even to entertain the idea of taking on Georgia elsewhere in the international calendar, mindful that they can make far more money against glamorous southern-hemisphere opposition. It is ironic, when all the rhetoric around rugby is to globalise the game, that the leading countries are in fact more selfish than ever. In the era of the Five Nations, Ireland played still-to-be accepted Italy four times in five years. Now the Georgians, the next coming force, are barely allowed a look-in.


There would, admittedly, be a few delicate logistical difficulties to paper over before they could ascend to the Six Nations aristocracy. Tbilisi is more than 2,500 miles from London, and the capital is too close to the breakaway region of South Ossetia for supporters to think about roaming too widely. But the beautiful narrow streets and crooked buildings of its old town have the potential, one day, to rival the tourist-trap trattorias around St Peter’s Square for atmosphere as rugby hang-outs.


This June, New Zealand are ending decades of scandalous self-interest by playing their first Test against Samoa in Apia. In 2019, the World Cup will alight upon the virgin lands of Japan. The momentum is inexorable. It is time for rugby’s northern-hemisphere giants to shelve their closed-shop thinking for good.


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