Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The case for Georgia

by Conor Cronin

ccbooms graphic

As European internationals finish for another season, @ccbooms has a look at what grand slam winners deserve

The final day of a big European tournament, where teams go head to head one last time to see who will be champions, who will get the dreaded wooden spoon, and who gets how much of the pot of money based on their finishing position.

One team going for a grand slam, one hoping they won’t be the bottom team, one a little worried at the possibility of ending up last if results don’t go as expected… It all sounds very like the six nations. But I’m not talking about that just yet.

The European Nations Cup, which has been linked to on this site a few times in the last few weeks (http://www.harpinonrugby.net/2016/03/european-nations-cup-relegation-battle.html) takes a slightly different format to our own 6 Nations. While each year is it’s own championship, with a champion crowned after 5 games, the other end of the table is run over two years. With each team playing each country twice, one year at home, the other away, and the two year’s results accumulate to determine a team to be relegated.

This year’s final weekend saw Georgia win another grand slam, 10 wins over the 2 years, giving them the title both years, and saw Portugal get relegated with only 1 win over the 2 years.

Just one win in two years sends Portugal to division 1B while Belgium who’ve only lost 1 over the two years get promoted.

There are other divisions running in exactly the same format including other European nations, but we’ll just look at the First division for the sake of this article.

Georgia are the team I want to really focus on. Grand slam winners again. If you look back at the last 7 years of the competition, the only year they didn’t finish at the top of the table was 2010, where Romania did. Saturday saw Georgia beat Romania, who finished second, 38-9. Fairly comprehensive I’d say.

If we look back to a world cup pool where we all know that they were never going to beat New Zealand, and were very unlikely to beat Argentina, their 3rd place in their pool is a fair one. Even the previous world cup, where they had England, Argentina and Scotland ahead of them in the pool, Scotland only won 15-6, all from the boot of Dan Parks.

Now let’s look at Italy, and take the same period, just 2010 to now.

Six nations wooden spoon, 2010, 2011, 2014 and 2016. Only 6 wins in the 6 nations over those 7 years (out of 35 games played).  Last world cup we all expected Ireland and France to finish ahead in the pool, but the Italians only beat Romania by 10 points, and last placed Canada by 5. In 2011, again we expected Australia and Ireland to finish ahead of them, but they were at least more convincing against Russia and the USA.

If we look at combined years, the way the 2nd tier competition does, Italy would have been bottom this season, and in fact if you take any 2 years combined, 10-11, 11-12, 13-14, 14-15 and 15-16, Italy would have been relegated. (12-13 is the only year they wouldn’t, with Scotland being bottom with the combined years.)

In this years six nations, (and I do acknowledge that with injuries it was always going to be tough) they conceded 29 tries.

Lets combine all this with the well known fact that both Italian club teams are bottom of the PRO12, with horrific minus points differences. While Zebre may have finished 2nd in their Challenge cup pool, they’d only 3 wins out of six, and Treviso had no wins in their Champions cup pool (and none of them were even close losses).

Ok, enough stats, where are we going with this!!

I don’t think a 7 nations competition would be a good idea. Not at present anyway. But there is definitely a case for promotion and relegation, and I see the format being one where, like it’s next stage competition, we base it on every 2 years results.

This would , let’s say, put Georgia in the six nations for the next two years. That’s 2 years of competition against established tier 1 nations. And then what? Maybe they drop down again and Italy come back up? Yeah maybe. Unless of course Romania have a great couple of seasons, or Italy a bad one. But it sends Georgia in to the next world cup having had a definite 10 tough games. 10 games where their standard improves. In the mean time, perhaps Italy have an easy run of it, but it’s 2 years where they build their team back up, work on the basics, build strength in depth, learn how to capitalise on the other team’s mistakes, something they really couldn’t do against Wales at the weekend.

It also puts nations like Romania and Russia in a position where they’re playing against the relegated team (in this scenario Italy) which then puts pressure on these teams to improve and put in a decent performance, therefore theoretically increasing the overall standard.

Georgia are already ahead of Italy in World Rugby’s rankings.  Their 55 thousand ish seater doesn’t quite compare with the Stadio Olimpico’s 70000 or so, but if we’re just talking about how many seats we can sell neither does Lansdowne Rd. They would definitely need to improve the club system, their internationals play mostly in France (although with new French rules this may change in the next couple of years) and their club rugby scene isn’t anything special at all. I wouldn’t mind seeing a competition between those clubs and the Italian Excellenza just to get an idea of the standard. But surely the money coming from TV rights for the 6 nations would improve all of this? The Italians are fighting to not be last, and getting plenty of money for doing so. And where does the money go? The Italian club game doesn’t seem to be improving at the same standard as the rest of their contemporaries in the pro12, and the Italian national team is suffering the same problem. Consistently in the bottom third of the table, except 2013, compared to Georgia’s league where they are consistently first except 2010.

With the money from 6 nations rights, maybe the Georgians could be developing their own club game. And much as the Italians had 10 years of 6 Nations before they entered a team in what would then become the Pro 12, surely the same opportunity could be given to the Georgians, to promote the club game with the aim of a couple of professional teams getting the opportunity if they prove themselves? (That’s an argument for a whole other article!)

Maybe Big Joe Shep is right in his write up of Leinster v Zebre and the Italian teams need to put more pressure on the governement for funding. But I believe that if they weren’t guaranteed the 6 nations income next year, things would change very quickly.

As I write and think about what could be done, I’m even open to the idea that the Georgians and Italians (based on this year’s standing) play each other in a promotion/relegation play off, home and away games that decide who competes in which competition next year. But something has to be done to force the Italians to improve. (Am I being unfair on the poor Italians?!)

Whatever the solution, the Georgians are definitely earning the right to play against the best while the Italians are earning money that’s not doing the job it’s meant to.

Conor Cronin (@ccbooms) is regularly found in the North Stand of the RDS screaming at Leinster. Failing that he’s screaming at some rugby match that is on the telly or being streamed on his phone.

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