Picture yourself at Murrayfield in 2015, huddled amongst the screaming crowd as Scotland and Italy face each other to decide who will be claiming the wooden spoon that year. Whilst the crowd itself would be the immediate shock to the system – even seeing people together on TV at the moment can cause one to enter a state of panic – you’d also be shocked by how different the relative fortunes of the two sides are today in 2021. In February 2015, Italy, down 16-15 at half time, gave a stellar second half performance to win the game 19-22 courtesy of a penalty try in the final minutes, beating a Scotland team that would go on to be whitewashed.
That was the last time Italy won a Six Nations match.
Six years later, and Italy have still failed to register a win since the 28th February 2015, meanwhile Scotland are on a remarkable resurgence, beating a lacklustre and lazy England side, and still in contention for the title in 2021. Conversely, Italy look set to be whitewashed for the sixth consecutive year, after losing 41-18 to England, 10-50 to France, and 10-48 to Ireland.
Recently, there have been calls from some commentators such as Sam Warburton for a kind of promotion-relegation system to be introduced to the Six Nations; wherein the bottom Six Nations side would be replaced by the top side in the Rugby Europe Championship, consisting of Belgium, Georgia, Romania, Spain, Russia and Portugal. Of these sides, Georgia is the most competitive, having won 11 of the last 14 tournaments. At first, this seems like quite an attractive prospect, giving both Italy a chance to play some more realistic opposition, and teams such as Georgia a chance to blood themselves against top quality sides, and improve their rugby considerably.
Nevertheless, as much as Sam might want to introduce this system, there are many administrative, practical, and reasoned arguments against such a system’s introduction. Firstly, as equal stakeholders in the tournament, the decision to implement a promotion and relegation system would require Italy to vote for and support it. One can hardly imagine Italy voting for their own inevitable relegation from the Six Nations. Thus the proposal is dead before it has even got going.
Secondly, while Italy have indeed provided little opposition, there is certainly no guarantee Georgia will do any better. In the recent Autumn Nations Cup, Georgia got resoundingly stuffed, scoring only ten points and zero tries in the entire tournament, including a 40-0 capitulation to England. As much as it can be argued performances would improve with regular matches against these sides, this hasn’t been the case with Italy, and it’s difficult to see why Georgia would succeed where Italy hasn’t. When the sides faced each other in 2018, Italy came away comfortable victors with a 28-17 win.
It might also finally be the time that Italy ‘just need a few more years’. Italy are starting to see the fruits of the involvement of Italian clubs in the Pro14, with talents such as Paolo Garbisi, Michele Lamaro, Stephen Varney and Jake Polledri all looking like promising players of the future. Current coach Franco Smith is focusing on developing this young talent and building his team around them. Now is the time to be helping Italy and Italian rugby, not kicking them out of the tournament.
All in all the promotion/relegation idea is a total non-starter, and what truly needs to happen is for Italy to expand their opponents during the touring window, playing sides such as the US, Georgia, Uruguay, and Argentina on a more regular basis. No-one likes to support a team that’s losing, and a few victories against sides like this could be exactly what Italian rugby needs.