Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Should The Six Nations Involve Relegation And Promotion?

This weekend sees the start of the 2011 Six Nations Championship. As usual the championship will be played out between England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales. Is it now time to become more inclusive though?

Rugby is a game that is expanding throughout Europe and throughout the world. Once only played by a handful of nations, there are now twelve European nations ranked in the world's top 25 teams. A further 25 European teams hold an international ranking (if you include Israel who play in European competitions).

All European teams, with the exception of the six nation teams, currently play in the European Nations Cup. There are 35 teams playing in this competition. Four of the competing teams do not hold an international ranking, which is why there is a discrepancy between the two sets of figures. The tournament is made up of seven leagues, and divided into three levels. The different levels compete in slightly different formats to take account of travelling constraints for lower level teams, who are more likely to be comprised of working amateurs.

Currently there is a promotion and relegation system in place between all seven of these leagues to allow nations to improve and rise through the ranks. However, once they reach the top of the European Nations Cup, which is effectively top of the second tier of European rugby, they hit a brick wall. There is no possibility of competing with the elite teams of European rugby in the Six Nations Championship.

Can this situation be right for a sport that is serious about expansion? In this modern world is it right that the top table of an international sport is not made available to any team that competes in that sport?

Surely the time has come to truly throw open the doors of European rugby and welcome all-comers? There may well be obstacles to overcome and teething problems at the beginning, but this will always be the case. They should not be used as an excuse to maintain the status quo of rugby elitism. Many of the same excuses were used by those who objected to Italy's inclusion in the Six Nations. Italy now compete very impressively within the championship, not only holding their own, but achieving wins along the way. There is no doubt that inclusion in the championship has benefited Italian rugby.

Some of the reasons that are put forward in the argument against including other European teams are nothing more than excuses. The most common one is that there is too great a disparity between the Six Nations teams and the teams below them. Playing them in the Six Nations would only lead to heavy defeats and demoralising the lower teams. It would also reduce the competitive nature and spectacle of the championship with such a weak team involved. This is a red herring. Not that these heavy defeats may not take place. However, this is how teams develop. They learn from playing stronger teams on a regular basis. They are welcomed into the World Cup, so why not proper European competition? With relegation and promotion in place they would not be exposed to prolonged heavy defeats as any weak team would face relegation and thus be back amongst teams they could beat a year later.

It is far more likely that the real reason behind these excuses is not about allowing the lower teams in as much as it is about the team that would need to make way to allow them to compete. The thought of an established international team playing at a lower level, even just for one year, is unpalatable to the current powers of rugby.

The worry of adding 35 new international teams to the structure is also a false argument. The current structure of the European Nations Cup already allows for promotion and relegation. All that would be involved is allowing for one team to be promoted and one relegated from the Six Nations.

There are however, some genuine obstacles that need to be faced up to. Perhaps the biggest in logistical terms is that the Six Nations is an annual competition while the European Nations Cup is played over two years to allow each team to play each other home and away.

Playing home and away is certainly a fairer system when relegation is at stake. A team that is in a year of playing three away games may well feel a little hard done by if that year also saw a relegation ensue. However, they accept that the Championship winners are genuine champions even if they have played three home games, so why not accept that the bottom team are genuinely relegated even if they have played three away games? You cannot claim that one is not valid if you accept that the other is valid.

As far as the European Nations Cup teams are concerned, would they accept changing their format to a one year system? Once the transition period had passed and the system was set up, then I am sure that they would accept that the benefits of development and increased revenues would far outweigh any negatives.

Then there is the issue of the annual competitions that take place within the Six Nations. What would happen to the possibilities of a Triple Crown if one of the home nations were relegated? What would happen to the Calcutta Cup if England or Scotland were relegated? Would a Grand Slam won in a year without one of the established Six Nation teams competing be viewed as less valuable?

The Triple Crown is not won annually. If one of the home nations were missing then we would just need to accept that it could not be won that year. The Calcutta Cup, or any of the other trophies competed for between individual nations, would just have to go down as not contested in that particular year. Surely that is a price worth paying for the greater good of the game? And a Grand Slam is a Grand Slam in any year. The name may change, but there is often a very weak team in a Six Nations Championship.

The real issue is whether the existing nations would be willing, or able, to forfeit a year without the revenues of competing in the Six Nations. Would a loss of that revenue hinder progression? I doubt it. In reality, the current Six Nations teams should be more than capable of bouncing back from any relegation for the immediate future. If, or when, the time came that they were not guaranteed bouncing back, we should celebrate the progression of the game rather than mourn the loss of guaranteed elitism. Competition drives progression.

And therein lies the real issue. Does the Six Nations championship serve rugby or the nations that currently monopolise it? For the good of the game we should welcome the day that the former becomes true rather than the latter.

3 comments:

  1. I agree that the six nations and European Nations cup should promote and relegate between each other. What if the last placed six nation's team had a promotion/relegation match with the winner of the E.N.C? This would provide the winner of the E.N.C at least a chance of getting into the 6nations, and this match would also stop the newly promoted team being to anti competitive as they would have to be somewhat competitive in the first place to win the promotion/ relegation match.

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  2. Well said, this guy is a legend. Go the ALL BLACKS!!!!

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  3. I completely agree with the first comment. The winner of the ENC could do a home and away match with the last placed team in the Six Nations. If they won it surely proves they are capable and if they didn't, they would still have the experience of playing a fully professional side and have something to aim for.

    Plus on the Calcutta Cup/Triple Crown issue, there is no reason why they could not still be competed. Hence if say Scotland went down, then they could just play England during that year separately to determine the winner. Same principle with the triple crown, if one nation needs to play another in order to win it, then they can complete that job at another point. This way they would still be guaranteed to play each other as well as the weaker nations. So the sooner they get this sorted, the better!

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