You don’t need to know much about Eastern European history to realise that any sporting contest between Russia and Georgia comes packaged with an extra layer of frisson and this European Nations Cup meeting between the countries didn’t disappoint, with one flare-up and a handful of yellow cards handed out by young English referee. Georgia ultimately came away with a 24-7 win.
Unbeaten in this year’s tournament, they host a Romanian side that has yet to lose in this year’s competition at the 54,000 capacity Boris Paichadze Dinamo Arena in Tbilisi tomorrow in a winner-takes-all encounter. Georgia bid for an eighth title in nine years. Their one failure in that time? Romania beat them in the 2010 final.
You probably know where this is going.
Italy will be facing Wales in Cardiff tomorrow. It is 16 years since the Azzurri were finally welcomed into the championship’s fold and any progress that was discernible has been lost. Ireland’s first Six Nations meeting with them, back in 2000, resulted in a 47-point win. The latest margin, last weekend, was 43. Italy’s points difference that first year, despite a comfortable opening win over the Scots in Rome was an embarrassing -122. The figure in 2014 was -109, last year’s was -120. That column currently stands at -92 and who knows where it will sit after their Cardiff trip?
Italy have conceded 50 points or more on 11 occasions in this tournament. Twelve wins and a draw have been hewn from the rubble of 63 defeats. The caveat that they were missing 14 injured players against Ireland is irrelevant in the bigger picture.
And yet who are they accountable to? The Six Nations remains a closed shop. A plaything of the minority. Even the concept of bonus points is met with a gruff ‘never!’ by the traditionalists whose hands remain on the tiller, so the idea that one of their number should have its seat at the table questioned must be anathema.
But what does that say to a sport that is beckoning a whole plethora of converts, mostly via the prospect of Olympic places and medals through the Sevens version, but also through those beavering away in the 15s game on the forgotten fringes?
Georgia and Russia weren’t the only ‘minnows’ operating away from the bright lights last week. Romania were busy piling 61 points on Germany in Iasi. Spain and Portugal contested an Iberian derby in Madrid while Moldova played host to Belgium.
The Georgians effectively stand marooned between the tiers: too good for one, and barred from the other. What exactly are they getting from that? Warren Gatland joined the growing chorus this week of those intimating that maybe the time has come to build a bridge between the two.
Georgia are 12th in the world rankings now. Italy are 14th. Octavian Morariu is the president of Rugby Europe, the body responsible for the sport’s promotion, development, organisation, and administration on the continent, and he has long called for both Georgia and Romania to be ushered in to make it a Seven or Eight Nations. Morariu has highlighted the advances made by Argentina since their entry into the Rugby Championship and their achievement in making the World Cup semis last year as proof of what regular contact with the tier one nations can do for a country’s development. An already overloaded fixture calendar might mitigate against that, but he has a point.
“Something like (a Six Nations place) for our development is crucial because in the long run if we develop into a competitive national side consistently, that’s the kind of competition we need to be in,” said Georgia coach Milton Haig after they put up an admirable resistance to New Zealand in the World Cup.
“You can see by Argentina’s progress and inclusion in the Rugby Championship how far their team has come along, so again we’d love that opportunity. We understand it’s a very difficult decision for the six partners to make, but it would grow the game globally. It would open up a big market in eastern Europe.”
The goodwill is there — a petition on change.org calling for Georgia to be admitted to the Six Nations has attracted 18,000 signatures — but the groundswell will likely ebb as the Rugby World Cup disappears in the rear view mirror.
Rugby’s chiefs shouldn’t be absolved so easily. The International Cricket Council got it in the neck when it unveiled plans to squeeze the size of its World Cup a few years ago and, make it increasingly difficult for non-Test playing nations like Ireland to qualify. It’s time to open the doors. God knows, the Six Nations could do with the fresh air.