Argument for Eight Nations will grow if rugby gospel wants to be spread

<span>Photograph: Giuseppe Fama/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Giuseppe Fama/Shutterstock

Apparently it took Michelangelo a little over four years to paint the 343 figures on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. He was in his mid-30s at the time and not entirely sure he was the right man for the job, given he was primarily a sculptor. “Every gesture I make is blind and aimless,” he lamented in a poem published in 1509. “I am not in the right place – I am not a painter.”

All the best transformations rely on a similar holy trinity of time, patience and, crucially, persistence. Which is why Italy’s vibrant performance against France at the Stadio Olimpico on Sunday made for such absorbing viewing. Yes, they should have kept calmer towards the end of their 29-24 loss. Yes, they gave the French too much of a head start. But it was their ability to give it a real go that really stood out. Making up the numbers? Not any more.

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It was a refreshing contest in other ways as well. For years there have been questions about Italy’s place in the Six Nations, which they joined in 2000. How wearing it must have been to endure all those barren years of routine disappointment. How difficult to blood new players when the more experienced heads guiding them are mostly accustomed to defeat.

So let us not minimise the effort involved in dragging the Azzurri up off the piazza floor and encouraging all concerned to embrace a higher vision. They have beaten Wales in Cardiff last March and Australia in Florence in November. Last Friday, Italy’s Under-20 team outscored France Under-20s by five tries to two in Treviso, only to miss four conversions and go down 28-27. Last year, they beat England’s Under-20s and secured three wins in their five matches. There is youthful talent that should shortly make the national squad even more competitive.

In short, the Italians are gathering momentum under their impressive young captain, Michele Lamaro. His was the first appointment made by the head coach, Kieran Crowley, when he took charge in November 2021, the idea being to look forward rather than endlessly backwards. “There had been so much negativity around their results, and the players feel that,” said Crowley.

Crowley’s other main focus has been to encourage his squad to enjoy their rugby more, hence the “attack, attack” style that is increasingly their default setting. “We needed to find a way to play and we had to find an identity,” the New Zealander said last year. “By an identity I mean we had to be known for the way we play and what we bring to the table. If you do that consistently, you get some credibility and respect. That’s been our driving force. If you get better and better at what you do, the results will come your way.”

Richard Cockerill will step down as England’s scrum coach to take charge of Montpellier’s forwards once the Six Nations has been completed, severing the last remaining tie to Eddie Jones’ management team.

Cockerill is the only coaching survivor from the Jones era after Matt Proudfoot, Brett Hodgson and Martin Gleeson departed in the wake of the Australian’s sacking in December.

The former Leicester and Edinburgh boss was retained by Steve Borthwick but his duties were reduced from being in overall charge of the pack to overseeing the revival of the worst performing scrum of any tier one nation in 2022.

Cockerill, who won 27 caps for England from 1997 to 1999, was recruited by Jones in September 2021 and served a brief spell as interim head coach until Borthwick was appointed.

“It has been an honour to not only play for my country, but to also get the chance to coach England,” Cockerill said.

In the case of a wonderful attacking talent like Ange Capuozzo, who added another fine finish on Sunday to his increasingly spectacular showreel that has already yielded a lucrative contract with a Top 14 club. France’s players, particularly their Toulouse contingent, now know Capuozzo well, but even they could not stop him. If England thought Duhan van der Merwe was a handful, something even more deadly is lurking just around the corner.

Which is all the Six Nations ever needs. Even if the traditional laws of championship gravity pertain and England win comfortably, Italy are now generating sufficient pre-game intrigue to silence the “What do they bring to the party?” brigade. For anyone who remembers some of the Azzurri greats of yesteryear, from Ivan Francescato and Massimo Giovanelli to Diego Dominguez and Alessandro Troncon, it is no less than a fiercely proud rugby nation deserves.

Georgian players celebrate scoring a try during the autumn IiWales.
Georgia players celebrate scoring a try during the autumn international match against Wales. Photograph: Levan Verdzeuli/Getty Images

So what next, then? The Six Nations have just confirmed a new incoming chief executive in Tom Harrison, latterly of the English and Wales Cricket Board. Given his role in the creation of the Hundred, which continues to divide opinion, even he would probably concede he arrives with a certain reputation. Equally, though, he is not someone who clings instinctively to the status quo.

It is certainly easy to envisage a cash-strapped South African Union sending him a warmly worded welcome email, closely followed by Georgia, Spain, Portugal, Romania and the rest. Because if shrinking the Six Nations or jettisoning Italy is no longer practicable, the only proactive longer-term option has to be expansion of some kind.

It may not happen immediately, but the ethical and financial argument for an Eight Nations will continue to grow whether traditionalists like it or not. What about two pools of four, say, involving three games for each nation, a fallow week and then two weeks of playoffs to identify not just the overall champions but the team that gets the wooden spoon. The latter, if desired, could then play off against the Rugby Europe champions, possibly galvanising the sport right across the continent.

Perhaps it is an excessive leap of the imagination based purely on a few early flashes of Italian exuberance. But if spreading the rugby gospel is about anything it is about hope and persisting with bold ideas despite the odds. Maybe Harrison should launch his tenure by booking a flight to Rome and visiting the Sistine Chapel.