Is turning Six Nations into Seven the solution to dilemma over Italy?

<span>Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

A play-off final involving the winner of the Rugby Europe Championship could help to bring new fans to the sport

Late on Saturday night in Edinburgh’s Old Town as we walked back to our hotel, the strains of a familiar tune floated past on the chill, gusty breeze. In the pub around the corner they were still having a grand old time and a loud rendition of “Take Me Home, Country Roads” was in full swing. Travelling revellers, fellowship, simple pleasures: if you were to bottle the essence of the Six Nations it was right there.

The opening weekend of rugby was enjoyable, too, give or take the inclement weather. The grounds were sold out and the singing of the anthems was as heartfelt as ever. There were record viewing figures on French television, with seven million apparently tuning in to watch the end of Sunday’s game against Italy. The Monday papers were full of lively follow-up and round two cannot come around quickly enough.

So the obvious question is this: how would you improve the men’s championship from here? Not in the parochial I-hope-our-lot-win sense but for the greater good. More teams? Fewer teams? Teams from the southern hemisphere? More John Denver? Or make no changes at all? Right now is the ideal moment to revisit the debate, with sodden clothes still drying and memories of a classic weekend still fresh.

Let us start with the annual conversation about Italy, currently on 33 successive Six Nations defeats and counting. The former British & Irish Lions captain Sam Warburton, speaking on the BBC’s revamped Rugby Special, reiterated his view that the “glass ceiling” protecting the Azzurri from dropping out of the championship and being replaced by, say, Georgia would not be permitted in any other forward-thinking business or industry.

Then again, maybe Warburton should have checked out the weekend results from the Rugby Europe Championship. In Tbilisi on Sunday, in front of a far-from-capacity crowd, Georgia were held to a surprise 25-25 draw by Portugal. The Portuguese deserved it, too, their sharpness out wide cancelling out Georgia’s close-quarter strength. It was the first time Georgia have not won a game in the second-tier competition since 2017.

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Interesting, no? What a story it would be if Portugal go all the way and top the table next month. Or Romania, Spain or Russia for that matter. And imagine if such a victory were a passport to a Six Nations play-off against the bottom-placed Six Nations side? Are we sure there would be limited televisual value and public interest? If it were marketed properly across Europe and broadcast on a free-to-air channel, the viewing figures would surely be significant.

Three, two, one … here come the naysayers. Ask the treasurers of Italy and Wales and they will roll their eyes, clutch their chests and warn of financial oblivion should the “cosy club” be revamped. The Six Nations hierarchy will also quietly remind you it is a privately run competition. They can invite – or retain – whoever they want. Diluting the quality of the tournament is in no one’s interests.

But hang on. What about South Africa? Such is the financial clout of the Six Nations that adding the Springboks to the mix is regarded, in Johannesburg and Cape Town at least, as a no-brainer. Why would the Europeans not want the world champions supping at the top table and potentially enriching the rugby, the wine list and the weather? With the private equity firm CVC apparently talking to SA Rugby, having already invested in northern hemisphere competitions, the money might be persuasive as well.

So what should happen next? A couple of immediate points need stressing. Simply axing Italy and reverting to the Five Nations would be a calamitous admission of collective failure. The Six Nations would also instantly surrender any claim to being a beacon of integrity and fair play if South Africa are suddenly fast-tracked with the rest of Europe still ostracised. The Boks, if they wish to enter, should debut in the second-tier tournament and fight their way up on merit.

Handr&#xe9; Pollard of South Africa. The Springboks are keen on a place in the Six Nations.
Handré Pollard of South Africa. The Springboks are keen on a place in the Six Nations. Photograph: Inpho/Shutterstock

In that event, could the following be a feasible scenario? Step forward the Seven Nations, commencing in 2024. It would comprise the current six nations plus the winner of the 2023 Rugby Europe title. Thereafter there would be an annual promotion/relegation play-off, instantly breathing fresh hope into rugby across the continent. In 2025 it might be Georgia or Italy v South Africa in Tbilisi or Rome. The following year, who knows?

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The Seven Nations, too, would introduce a fairer split of three games at home and three away but retain the biennial home and away roster. True, there would be some extra fixtures to be squeezed in but it would take down Warburton’s glass ceiling. Crucially the emphasis would be on enhancing what already exists rather than selfishly ring-fencing the interests of a few.

Then again, would the pluses ultimately outweigh the minuses? Adding South Africa would have major implications for the Lions, among others. How many people really want to spend a long weekend in Joburg or Pretoria rather than Rome? What about the increased carbon footprint?

And would it not be logistically simpler for the championship to stay purely European and for the global element to be reserved for the July and November windows instead? Questions, questions, with no definitive answers as yet. But if, in 2032, you walk past a busy bar in Durban, Lisbon or Tbilisi and hear John Denver playing, it’ll be proof that international rugby is in rude health.

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