As key stakeholders in rugby convene in Dublin tomorrow about a ‘world’ league that seems more concerned with concentrating and increasing the wealth for its bluebloods than spreading the word to the unconverted and the cash to the marginalised, it has probably escaped rather than focused their minds that the deciding game in Europe’s biggest international competition is once again between one nation with a population of just 6.6 million and another with just 3.1 million.
Just like 10 years ago, and indeed 14 years ago, the outcome of the Six Nations championship and a possible Grand Slam and Triple Crown hinges on a game between Ireland and Wales in Cardiff.
That climax to the 2009 championship –“Grand Slam at stake! HE’S GOT IT!– combined with Bernard Dunne getting up off the canvas to lay Ricardo Cordoba out on it later that evening, still remains one of the greatest Irish sporting days of this century. And we’d all be more partial in these parts to either an Ireland or Wales winning the championship than England or France. But you’d wonder if the sport ever dreams of, or plans, for a day that it could be Germany or Spain.
The continent’s leading club trophy may claim to be a ‘European’ Champions trophy despite being confined to just six nations, much the same way as the American sports and leagues are exaggerating matters when they proclaim their winners as ‘world’ champions. But the most important competition in the European national team game seems content to forego any mention of the E word, albeit not out of any humility but more a form of smugness. Six Nations is perfectly fine and more than enough, thank you. This shop is closed.
This was the 20th championship of it being a Six Nations. Only twice in that time have Italy finished outside the bottom two. This will likely be their 14th season up with the wooden spoon. Since beating Ireland in Declan Kidney’s last game in charge, they have won only one of their subsequent 24 championship matches and lost their past 20.
It was wholly appropriate so after his team pummelled Conor O’Shea’s by 43 points that Eddie Jones floated the idea of relegation from the championship. While he didn’t explicitly reference the current plight of Georgia, it probably informed his comments as much as the state of Italy, with Jones’s squad benefitting from training with and against the Georgian national team during their recent two-week gap between matches.
As things stand now, Georgia are ranked 12th in the world, two spots ahead of Italy. Yet, instead of finding Italy below them on the ladder, Georgia find themselves looking in at Italy from the outside, like the homeless peering in at the window of an exclusive restaurant where the privileged wine and dine. To Conor O’Shea’s credit, he is the one turkey in this whole
affair who would be willing to vote for Christmas for the greater good. One of the more progressive proposals in the new world league being touted is that the bottom side in the Six Nations would play off against the team who topped European’s second tier, something Georgia has done seven of the past eight years.
“The one thing we need to do is to grow the game,” O’Shea said ahead of his team’s loss to England. “If we just have the couple of rich kids winning everything, we don’t have a game. It’s what is good for the game.”
Unfortunately, the rest of the proposed World League is less about growing the game as ensuring the rich kids continue to win or at least compete for everything. For every Georgia that could win a golden ticket to that exclusive restaurant and condemn an Italy to being a Dan Aykroyd enviously looking in on how they’ve traded places, Fiji – though ranked ninth in the world – and Tonga and Samoa seem destined forever to find themselves on the outside.
Pat Lam has rightfully criticised the “shocking” new 12-team annual tournament proposals as a “real slap to the face of the Pacific Islands”. Although rugby has traditionally prided itself as a sport everyone could play – small, stocky, short, stout, fast, fat, tall, thin – it doesn’t apply to nations itself, it would appear.
Already world rugby has allowed those countries to be treated appallingly by the sport’s powers.
At tomorrow’s meeting about the proposed new world league, someone needs to remind the others around the table that the sport should be about inclusion, not exclusivity; expansion, not contraction. While several of the sport’s traditional powerhouses – most obviously, South Africa – are financially struggling as both a nation and a sport, others don’t need to be cut off for the Springboks to be propped up.
Jones was right in acknowledging that the Six Nations is a terrific tournament for the most part: Ireland-Wales will likely be as good a sport as any you’ll find on all the channels you’ll hop through this weekend.
But he’s also correct that it should not be a closed shop. Even hurling, that other great sports protector of cosy cartels and the entitled, now has some form of relegation and promotion for both league and championship, allowing the Georgia that’s Carlow a shot at playing and beating and replacing the Italy –or Scotland – that’s Offaly.
There is also some merit to and appeal in some form of world league, like the top two sides in both the Six Nations – or however many teams are in Europe’s primary competition – and the Rugby Championship playing off; how cool would it have been in 2009 and 2018 if our clashes with the best of the southern hemisphere had been for more than being the unofficial best team in the world that year? World League champs has a better ring to it.
But rugby has to protect and promote the 15-man game in those countries who already are passionate about it – namely the Pacific Islands – and bring a Georgia in from out of the cold.
Italy have been in the championship for two decades. Another 20 years might yet be too soon for a Germany or Spain to join or replace them, but why not in 30 or 40 years’ time? Football, basketball, Olympic handball; their top three, top six, top 20 is in constant flux. No other proper European sport has a gated community like rugby.
Johnny Sexton has a lot on his plate and his mind these days, not least the matter of Wales and possibly foiling and stealing a championship title. But he’ll be in attendance at that meeting in Dublin today in his capacity as president of the International Rugby Players’ association. Already he and his colleagues have described the proposals as “out of touch”, mainly because its increase in fixtures would overload already overly-stretched players.
But we’d hope he’s as mindful as the player from the Georgian or Fijian national team as he is about a Six Nations international plying his trade in the Top 14 or PRO14 or Premiership. And that with him banging the table that the sport has to think bigger, that the Johnny Sexton of the next generation is a household name in Berlin and Madrid and Copenhagen compared to the indifference that meets his name there now. As big as the Rugby World Cup is, world rugby is still far too small.