Picture the scene; Six Nations 2030, a packed stadium of 50,000 cheering fans, a large green pocket of Irish travelling fans surrounded by maroon shirts. Hold on, Maroon? It’s not that the Welsh shirts had a France shirt mixed up in the wash, it’s Georgia.
A new face in the Six Nations? Likely? Who knows? A welcome change? Certainly, given the poor record of Italy in recent years.
For this to come about would require a significant change in the current structures of European rugby, but one Irishman has already been given a taste of this potential future.
Seán Gallagher, the Co. Meath referee who also works with the IRFU to train the future generation of officials, will take charge of Belgium v Spain in Brussels on Sunday, in the Rugby Europe Championship — the competition one tier below the Six Nations.
Romania, Russia, Portugal and Georgia are the other teams who make up this year’s tournament – with Georgia on course for a sixth Grand Slam in seven seasons – a mirror opposite of the Italian performance in the tier above.
This competition passes by almost unnoticed by even hardened rugby fans — but should the door to promotion ever be opened, Irish fans could soon be planning weekends in Madrid, Cologne, Lisbon, Bucharest or, yes, Tbilisi. 52,000 fans turned up at the Dinamo Arena in March 2017 to see Georgia beat Russia, and Gallagher has that fixture on his bucket list.
“It’s a great adventure to see all the different cultures, and it’s slightly different because week in week out, I’m in the PRO14 or EPCR, or the Women’s game,” he said. “It’s a different atmosphere in places you’d not usually get to and it’s be great to see them playing Top tier teams more often. It’s always nice to referee the bigger games – Romania v Georgia is a great rivalry, and they sometimes play in Cluj – where they’ve had Champions League team plays, it’s fantastic to go there. I’d love to referee that Georgia v Russia, with 50,000 at that in Dinamo’s ground. I’d love to get that game in the next couple of years... I’m keeping my fingers crossed.”
As an official, Gallagher cannot give a position of the question of promotion-relegation, but he speaks positively of what’s on offer in the second tier competition. Irish refs Joy Neville, Frank Murphy, George Clancy and Andy Brace have all refereed in the competition while Chris Busby will make his debut when Spain host Portugal in Madrid in nine days.
“My first international game was in 2013 – when I reffed Romania v Portugal, then in 2014 I did Spain v Portugal too, which is always full, in a University ground in Madrid, it’s a great match. The coaches, players, administrators, will tell you everything going on in the Pro14, Top 14, EPCR... they’re so passionate.”
It’s not just some casual hobbyists running out at the weekend either, as Gallagher explains.
“Most of the teams have professional players, and professional leagues, even though people don’t know of them.
“Georgia have the Big 10 – a ten team professional league, and I reffed the final of that in 2010, so I’d know a lot of the players. Romania have a professional league, the SuperLiga, and Russia too. Georgia have a huge number of pros in the French leagues, while even Spain have some full time pros. The standard in general is good, and sometimes there’s a one-sided game but you get that in the Six Nations too.”
Saturday: Belgium v Spain at Stade Communal Fallon, Brussels (2pm). Live on https://www.rugbyeurope.eu/welcome-rugby-europe-tv