Brendan O'Brien wonders if Italy are still worthy of their Six Nations spot.
It’s six years, give or take a few weeks, since the International Cricket Council (ICC) thumbed its nose at all accepted notions of sporting fair play and announced that future World Cups would be slimmed down from 14 to 10 teams.
It was a decision that didn’t impose a glass ceiling on the likes of Ireland so much as brick over the one already in place.
The context only added to the sense of anger and bewilderment.
A month earlier, Ireland had won two of their six games at the 2011 event. One of those was the sensational three-wicket defeat of England at the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore, when Kevin O’Brien produced the fastest century in the tournament’s history and Ireland the highest ever run chase to claim the most unlikely of victories.
Irish bowler Boyd Rankin took to Twitter to call the ICC a “shambles” in the wake of the cuts, captain William Porterfield described it as a “kick in the teeth” and Cricket Ireland chief executive Warren Deutrom dispensed with any diplomatic protocol by labelling it as a betrayal of sporting principles. He claimed, rightly, that it was a victory for the protection of existing privileges over that of fairness and equality.
It’s a story that always springs to mind at this time of year when an Italian side — one that should have been added to the old Five Nations long before it eventually was, 17 years ago but that, by any fair sporting measure, has long passed the point where it can continue to justify its place in the Six Nations — ships yet another handful of smackings.
You wonder where the sense of outrage is on behalf of Georgia. The Eastern Europeans are ranked 12th in the world rankings, two places above the Azzurri. They have won eight of the last nine titles in European rugby’s second tier and shown their potential in qualifying for the last four World Cups. They won two games in a tournament for the first time in 2015. England, Scotland, and, most memorably, Ireland have all found them troublesome in the past.
There is no-one fighting Georgia’s corner, not with any conviction, and it’s no puzzle as to why.
Tbilisi is no Rome, for starters, and there are six Italians for every one of the 10 million Georgians. These are the numbers that count, not the likes of those posted on the scoreboard at the Stadio Olimpico last weekend when Ireland won 63-10. It’s why the Six Nations habitually bats away any talk of promotion and relegation between their golden circle and the rest.
Bruce Craig was one of those chief architects who deconstructed the old Heineken Cup and replaced it with the Champions Cup. The Bath owner put forward the case for the Anglo-French wedge bluntly during tournament negotiations a few years back when he stated that it was all to do with chimney pots: England and France had 10 times the amount of the Celtic nations combined, basically.
The same thinking governs cricket’s protectionism.
When Ireland upset Pakistan and Bangladesh did for India at the 2007 World Cup, it scuppered the expectation that the two subcontinental giants would meet in the next round. TV firms and sponsors had any number of canaries and ICC insiders admitted four years later it was those very results that prompted the raising of the drawbridge.
What will it take for the Six Nations to wind theirs down?
Events last weekend in Offenbach, a town just east of Frankfurt, may have a bearing. While Ireland were dismantling Italy, Germany managed to claw back an 18-point second-half deficit to stun Romania in the first round of the Rugby Europe Championship. The game also counts towards qualification for the 2019 World Cup.
“This win is crazy, historic,” said Germany’s Aussie-born captain Sean Armstrong.
That it was. Romania, ultra competitive in the Communist era but kept at arm’s length from the Five Nations, remain the poster boys for how rugby can wither on the vine when limits are imposed on progress. A strong Germany would be an altogether different proposition and one on which the bean counters at the summit of the game could not look down their noses so easily.
The game is still amateur but there is progress, with billionaire Dr Hans-Peter Wild establishing academies and school ties and sponsoring the national team. “Germany is Europe’s strongest economy,” the German union’s sporting director Manuel Wilhelm told dw.com before the Romania game. “We are 82 million people strong, so there’s economic potential there. But there’s also potential on the field of play.” Germany’s road remains a long one but they aren’t the only Europeans playing catch-up with the Azzurri.
Romania have actually made some strides again, despite that shock defeat. Spain edged past Russia in front of 8,000 people in Madrid last Saturday and both are marginally ahead of the Germans in the race to catch Italy in the rankings. The Italians, it seems, are stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Or should be, at least.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved