Nick “Bones” Attewell is back after contributing on several articles over the past few months. Bones felt inspired and has decided to pen this piece for us.
ATLANTA, GA: USA Rugby CEO Nigel Melville authored some interesting tweets early last week after legendary Ireland hooker-turned-BBC pundit Keith Wood made an impassioned call for the Six Nations to consider sides like Romania and Georgia for future inclusion. While Wood’s comments are music to the ears of any Tier 2 supporter, we are realistically years away from any consideration of such drastic changes to the established order.
Melville, increasingly a confident voice for rugby’s rising nations, offered the suggestion that the US may be open to playing tests in the current Six Nations window, as the IRB afford European-based players like Samu Manoa and Takudzwa Ngwenya release from their clubs during this time. Canada are in the same position. So too Georgia and Romania, who increasingly dominate the European Nations Cup (‘Six Nations B’) on and off the field, developing Europe’s finest Tier 2 players and capable of producing test match spectacles befitting of the game’s elite, with television coverage, crowds and the top class venues you’d expect in professional rugby. Romania have recently begun to stage matches at the Cluj Arena, a UEFA Elite venue, on par with virtually any stadium in the world. Georgia have access to their 60,000-seat national stadium in Tbilisi, which they are able to nearly fill at times. These are the sorts of backdrops needed to launch an ambitious new international competition, which would be appealing to US broadcasters. Recent tests in Houston, Philadelphia and Toronto attracted large crowds and declared that North American rugby too was ready to climb to new heights in rugby’s global hierarchy.
So, a proposal should be made for a new international tournament, running concurrent to the Six Nations. Ideally a corporate sponsor would step forward for naming rights – AIG, anyone? For the purposes of this article, we’ll refer to it as the Northern Rugby Championship – the NRC.
Following the Six Nations format requires two additional participants beyond Canada, Georgia, Romania and the USA. While the likes of Portugal, Spain and Russia show flashes of potential, they are prone to the missteps associated with amateur rugby administration. The final two puzzle pieces may be a couple of the Six Nations kingpins themselves, Ireland and England. The IRFU and RFU each run ‘A’-side programs which are significantly more organized than their Six Nations counterparts – the likes of Wales no longer even run an ‘A’ side. There was once a full ‘A’ Six Nations, with teams made up of players just outside of the main squad, playing ‘A’ matches against each other and competing for places in the main team, though this has gone by the wayside as poorer unions cut costs. The RFU have no such concerns, naming a full squad of ‘A’ players, known as the England Saxons for marketing reasons. Similarly Ireland have begun to market their ‘A’ side, dubbing them the Ireland Wolfhounds. While these names weren’t favored by traditional fans initially, they have allowed both England and Ireland to establish new and unique brands. England Saxons and Ireland Wolfhounds are simply easier to pitch to broadcasters, and for broadcasters to promote themselves, and indeed both teams now find their matches regularly televised and increasingly supported in their respective countries.
The NRC would be different from similar predecessors like the Churchill Cup from the outset. Unlike the famously unfriendly-to-player-release June window, which was prone to weakened and tired squads at the business end of the long European club season, the NRC would target commercial appeal first and foremost. Large, modern stadiums would be utilized, rather than the small, often neutral venues favored in the past, with matches carried by official broadcasters and generally used as a showcase for new audiences rather than glorified training runs. England and Ireland ‘A’ would play on Friday nights locally or Saturday afternoons in North America so not to conflict with Six Nations broadcasts, and take matches to hallowed venues like Ravenhill in Belfast and Welford Road in Leicester.
A sample schedule based on the 2015 Six Nations slate could look something like the following. To cut down on travel costs, it easily can be arranged so that just a single nation has to make more than two Transatlantic flights.
Sample 2015 Northern Rugby Championship schedule:
Saturday, 7 February – Romania v Georgia, Cluj; Canada v England Saxons, Toronto*; USA v Ireland Wolfhounds, Houston
Friday, 13 February – England Saxons v USA, Oxford; Ireland Wolfhounds v Romania, Limerick
Saturday, 14 February – Georgia v Canada, Tbilisi
Friday, 27 February – Ireland Wolfhounds v England Saxons, Belfast
Saturday, 28 February – Georgia v USA, Tbilisi; Romania v Canada, Bucharest
Friday, 13 March – England Saxons v Georgia, Leicester
Saturday, 14 March – USA v Romania, Philadelphia; Canada v Ireland Wolfhounds, Toronto
Friday, 20 March – Georgia v Ireland Wolfhounds, Tbilisi; England Saxons v Romania, Exeter
Saturday, 21 March – USA v Canada, New York
*Rogers Centre, covered stadium
This wouldn’t completely disrupt the minor European pyramid, allowing for the likes of Belgium, Germany, Moldova, Portugal, Russia and Spain – arguably a more even group – to compete together as the tier below and make their case for inclusion. The Russian union have been vocal in their desire to shift the European Nations Cup window to May-June, which could adversely affect nations like Romania and Georgia, who rely on French and various other Western European clubs to release their best players.
Any hurdles this presents for Rugby World Cup qualification are easily avoided, if a system is allowed for the top-placed European and North American teams to qualify automatically as the RWC’s North America 1 and Europe 1, while the two lower-placed sides filter into the usual qualifying cycle, taking place outside of the new competition’s window.
As the game continues to move forward in countries like the US and Georgia, with their unions now able to present a media-friendly product, we should not allow them to be dragged down by lack of local competition (North America) or unambitious partners (Europe). They can come together a present a spectacle that is attractive to local audiences and can ultimately grow their bases and reap financial rewards.
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