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World Rugby Chairman Bernard Lapasset, the outgoing head of the organization, has publicly supported relegation in the annual European Six Nations Championship. His opinion has generated controversy among European rugby federations.
The process of relegation where teams that end on the bottom of the table drop to the next, lower league, has thrived in Europe, especially and historically, among soccer football teams. The process penalizes poorly performing clubs, and rewards winners of the lower divisions.
The English rugby Aviva Premiership relegates one club of the twelve in the league, and, today, it’s London Irish on the bottom with three games left in the schedule.
Lapasset’s reasoning is that a one nation promotion from the winner of the European Nations Cup, ENC (the second division) would award a nation that has improved its rugby proficiency. Specifically, he champions a play-off with the loser of the Six Nations and the winner of the European Nations Cup to decide who goes (or stays) up and who goes down.
For the past decade, this has been Georgia, the perennial ENC champion, which, additionally had a two win Rugby World Cup in 2015. The perennial loser in the Six Nations has been Italy, a member since 2000 with 17-seasons of play, and 11 of those 17 were last place finishes.
In the past, it was Lapasset, when head of the French Rugby Federation, who spurred Italy’s acceptance into the previous Five Nation Championship, arguing, correctly, that an even number of participants (six) would provide three television matches each weekend instead of two with one nation idle.
Although Italy have recorded wins against all the others nations except England, their play have not been up to Six Nations rugby standard with rare runs of two victories, the maximum they obtained in but a few seasons.
Relegation would spell the death knell for Italian rugby, contracting internal interest in its growth, and decreasing substantially national sponsorship opportunities. For example, the city of Rome is listed as a sponsor with plans to build a new stadium dedicated solely to the Azzurri. A relegation to the ENC, and to compete against Romania, Russia, Germany, Spain, and newly promoted Belgium, would put a damper on any expenditure of funds.
Of note, Laspasset’s pronouncements comes with his tenure winding down, only a few months left in his four-year term.
It is highly doubtful that the Six Nations organization will consider relegation now or in the future. Italy is a destination, and a known European sports quantity, a major marquee player in other continental competitions, whereas Georgia is not.
But another reason also exists: what if the other tier one fifteens (France, England, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland) would finish last? Can anyone perceive that these leading northern hemisphere rugby nations would end their 100 plus years of competitions against each other to drop into second division rugby obscurity?