The prospect of Ireland playing Georgia in the Six Nations is over — for the time being — after the competition’s new chief executive ruled out the possibility of introducing relegation.
John Feehan stepped down from his role after 16 years in charge of northern hemisphere rugby’s greatest international tournament in April of last year, and has been succeeded by Benjamin Morel.
Perennial Six Nations strugglers Italy have not won a game for two years as the 2019 Six Nations begins tonight with France hosting Warren Gatland’s Wales in Paris.
It has led to many calling for a team such as Georgia to be introduced in place of the Azzurri, with whoever finishes bottom of the table playing off against the best tier two nation for a tournament place.
Morel, however, has delivered a huge blow to ambitious Georgia — who count former England and Leicester forward Graham Rowntree among their coaching staff — by revealing there are no plans to allow them to step up to the highest level by bringing in promotion and relegation.
He told the Irish Examiner: “I don’t have a verdict on relegation. It’s just not on the table or agenda at all. What makes the Six Nations totally unique is the significant meaningfulness of the 15 games we have and we are very satisfied with that at the moment.”
Morel’s refusal to open up the Six Nations drawbridge to Georgia is sure to be unpopular with those who believe World Rugby has a duty to grow the game in countries where the sport is still developing.
Regardless, it looks as though that debate is over for now.
Morel has joined the Six Nations after spending 21 years with the National Basketball Association, six of which saw him employed as managing director.
His huge experience within the NBA means Morel has a great deal of knowledge on US television and commercial markets. He believes playing Six Nations games on US soil is a non-starter for now, but is poised to explore new broadcast deals as far afield as Africa and the Far East.
Ireland’s Six Nations games are already broadcast on NBC in America and will be streamed live in 23 Asian countries by this season. Morel wants to expand that sphere even further.
“It’s fantastic for me to be involved with the Six Nations. I can’t wait for my first tournament and to see it with a new set of eyes,” he said.
“It’s going to be very tight and very difficult to envisage playing a Six Nations game in a new country. We only have 15 games, so our ability to do one of those abroad is going to be limited. At the same time, the countries who play in the Six Nations can use the autumn window to do just that.
“We saw games in America in November with Ireland playing against Italy and that is to be encouraged. We need more markets to be involved in rugby. That’s paramount. In my previous role I benefitted from taking NBA games internationally but in the Six Nations, it’s not on the agenda. What is on the agenda is exploring fresh TV deals in certain countries.
“America is a very interesting market. Given my background, I know there is a lot of opportunity there, but there are also other markets which we can explore. The continent of Africa and Japan — with the Rugby World Cup there later this year — are just two.
“There is a lot of untapped opportunities out there for rugby and for the Six Nations. The tournament is already broadcast around the world and my job is to engage directly with all our international broadcasters to improve the coverage. There is a lot more to come TV-wise in the future.”
Morel’s ambition with regards to the Six Nations and its TV rights comes on the eve of World Rugby’s powerbrokers’ meeting in Los Angeles to discuss the prospect of a new global knockout competition.
Reports in the English media suggested an as yet unnamed broadcaster would want the rights to such a tournament as well as the Six Nations. It could yet mean the competition moves away from free-to-air television. Morel stayed tight-lipped when asked about the status quo.
However, it is clear he has grand plans to further drive the Six Nations forward. One of his main focuses is to bring in an increase in revenue. New title sponsors Guinness have signed a six-year deal, but their £6 million (€6.85 million) fee is half that of what previous supporters Royal Bank of Scotland were paying.
Morel also plans to put the next generation of rugby fans at the heart of his message.
He said: “We’ve got a lot of coverage for the tournament already, which covers the world. It is a unique property, but we can work more closely and that’s what I’ll try to do.
“My vision of success is to make sure the Six Nations is as competitive off the pitch as it is on it.
"I’m going to be working on increasing the value of the Six Nations, but at the same time realising I’m building on fantastic foundations.”