It's time for the establishment to stop ignoring Georgiaby William Odinga 16/02/2017 18:12:00 0 comments 1 Views
- Georgia are ranked two places above Italy in World Rugby's global chart
- They have won the second-tier Rugby Europe Championship since 2011
- Georgia have both the finances and support to warrant involvement
- Italy, meanwhile, shipped 63 points at home against Ireland on Saturday
By Chris Foy for the Daily Mail
Published: 17:30 EST, 16 February 2017 | Updated: 18:12 EST, 16 February 2017
The time has come for rugby to decide what sort of sport it wants to be. Open or closed? Elitist or meritocratic? Global or colonial? Visionary or reactionary?
Events in Rome last weekend have brought matters to a head once again. Italy shipped 63 points at home against Ireland. By the end, it was embarrassing. Listen carefully and it would have been possible to hear a multitude of 'blazers' shifting uncomfortably in their very comfortable seats.
The status quo is being held up to ridicule and a profound shift in the European landscape can be ignored no longer.
Giorgi Nemsadze of Georgia celebrates with his national flag during the 2015 World Cup
Georgia are ranked two places above the Azzurri in World Rugby's global chart; lying 12th. They have won the second-tier Rugby Europe Championship every year since 2011.
They are well financed and hugely supported; with 50,000 crowds when Russia and other key rivals come to Tbilisi. They are the continent's sixth-best team at present, but they are not part of the Six Nations.
This nonsense has gone on long enough. The 'Lelos' are in limbo; frozen out by the cosy establishment – just as Argentina were for so long.
Earlier this month, when Georgia suggested an annual match against the bottom team from the championship, the idea was crudely dismissed.
Six Nations chief executive John Feehan told the BBC: 'We've got to look at the integrity of our competition; what's good for us and not necessarily what's good for Georgia. A game like that could involve speculation that wouldn't be helpful.'
Craig Gilroy breaks clear of the Italian backline en route to scoring another try against Italy
A ring-fenced 'competition' has no integrity and those in the committee rooms are certainly not being helpful, when it comes to genuinely driving the growth of the sport.
Turkeys won't vote for Christmas, so it is high time for World Rugby, as the global governing body, to intervene. The northern hemisphere's blue-riband event cannot continue to be run as a private members' club; a relic of the amateur days.
It is time for an open era of fair movement; of rewarding ambition and upward mobility. Promotion and relegation is an essential step, or all the brave talk of expansionism really is just hot air.
As well as chasing money-markets such as the USA and China, rugby should be striving for a pan-European future. Germany and Spain both won well last weekend and interest is rising in those countries.
Georgia are ranked two places above the Italians in World Rugby's global chart
Germans followed the World Cup in their millions – according to online data – while a crowd of 26,500 watched Spain's domestic cup final.
Imagine, one day, England versus Germany; a bona fide Test match. Or France v Spain. New rivalries could galvanise the game and enhance it.
Rugby is facing a stark choice; stick or twist? Stay locked in the familiar routine, treating those outside with suspicion and contempt, or open the door to the possibility – however distant at this stage – of dynamic growth, variety and true worldwide appeal.
Over to you, World Rugby. Start by forcing the integration of Georgia and once a meritocracy is in place, there's no limit to where the game could go.
GATLAND'S NOT HIGH ON THE HOGG
Warren Gatland has been heartened by some stirring feats in the opening rounds of this year's RBS Six Nations, providing further hope that his Lions can be a competitive in New Zealand.
But, with the head coach due to name a tour squad in two months' time, he is keeping his cards close to his chest. Gatland was asked which players had caught his eye so far. He was reluctant to say.
When pressed, he said: 'Stuart Hogg has played alright.' Alright?! The Scotland full-back has provided renewed proof that he is an attacking genius, but Gatland added: 'He missed a couple of tackles last week.' He is a hard man to please; as he should be, in his current guise. One back who has impressed him is England wing Elliot Daly – normally a centre, but a match-winner out wide in Cardiff last weekend.
'Elliot has done well and he is quick,' said the Kiwi. 'He has got some positive attributes.' There was also praise for his 2013 captain, Sam Warburton, as Gatland added: 'He's been outstanding. The challenge for him is staying injury-free.'
Scotland's Stuart Hogg (left) in action against France's Damien Chouly (right)
While Gatland is unwilling to divulge too much of his selection thinking, he was far more strident about the prospect of future Lions tours being reduced to eight matches – as revealed in these pages last week.
He is evidently alarmed at the threat to one of the sport's great institutions.
Having demanded that all stakeholders in the game are fully consulted on any plans, Gatland said: 'If you cut the Lions down from 10 games to eight, and we still turn up in New Zealand (or South Africa, or Australia) with no training in the UK or Ireland as a full squad, and limited time before the first match, I don't think you've achieved anything. The Lions is an incredibly special brand and it needs to be protected.
'Every four years should do as much as we can to promote the Lions and continue the history and the tradition that the Lions have.'
He went on to question whether decisions about the future of the Lions are being made for the 'betterment' of the game, or based on self-interest. Sadly, the latter is true. Self-interest is jeopardising one of rugby's primary assets, which amounts to an act of vandalism.
Warren Gatland (left) watches on during the Six Nations match between Scotland and Ireland
Steve Hansen is worried. His All Blacks may be world champions, but he is facing a looming problem and it is making him irritable.
He has ignited an unseemly row with Pat Lam – the Connacht coach who will take charge of Bristol in the summer – by calling him an 'ex-New Zealander', as part of a barbed remark about Lam's assumed role in Bristol's pursuit of leading Kiwi talent.
The West Country club have signed one All Black, Steven Luatua, and now have two more in their sights; Ryan Crotty and TJ Perenara.
Lam was incensed by Hansen's outburst and released a lengthy statement, in which he said: 'I'm not sure why Steve Hansen would choose to single me out publically.
'Many New Zealanders would also be offended to be labelled an "ex-New Zealander" by the All Black coach, as he has great influence because of his position of privilege and responsibility.'
Yet, even Hansen's 'great influence' – armed with the bargaining chip of the fabled black jersey – might not be able to prevent a player exodus. He knows it, which is why he is lashing out.
Pat Lam (right) and Steve Hansen (left) watch on during a training session in 2011
THE LAST WORD
There has been so much to admire already in this Six Nations, but intensity levels have been off the chart. It has been brilliant but brutal.
Scotland have already lost their captain, Greig Laidlaw, for the rest of the campaign, and Vern Cotter's side had to endure fierce punishment in Paris last weekend.
That game was not alone in demonstrating the folly of plans for the tournament to be compacted into a five-week window.
The physical toll would be unbearable, without a break along the way.
Scotland's Josh Strauss is wrapped up by Yoann Maestri, Baptiste Serin and Guilhem Guirado
Fair play to Scotland's rookie prop, Zander Fagerson, for sticking his head above the parapet to say as much. 'I think that's completely implausible,' he said of the agenda being pushed by English clubs.
'In the junior World Cup, where you play five games over four weeks, it's pretty brutal, and that's at Under 20 level. Internationally, it would be ridiculous.'
Even England, with their unparalleled resources, have been stretched in some areas, which is why the sight of Mako Vunipola returning from injury to start for Saracens against Gloucester at Kingsholm on Friday night will be such a satisfying one for Eddie Jones.