Italy may be terrified of the prospect of a promotion/relegation system in the Six Nations but the reality is that they are making the case for it themselves.
Italy’s Six Nations campaign this year: five games, five losses, 203 points conceded at an average of 41 per match – not pretty figures.
Even uglier was last season when they only posted 50 points or their 2016 effort when they shipped 224.
Needless to say, they did not win a single match of either tournament, replicating their total this time around.
The Azzurri sit in lowly 14th according to World Rugby’s rankings, two places behind the men who would be kings – Georgia.
The Eastern Europeans are angling for a shot in the big time and want to showcase their talents by facing Italy in a test.
The prospect looked unlikely with Six Nations CEO John Feehan ruling it out before World Rugby stepped in to approve a match for the 2018 autumn internationals.
The result of that could be critical – should Italy lose, or even be pushed close, the pressure will mount for dialogue regarding breaking up the exclusivity of the current setup.
The fact that Georgia got so close to Wales in the 2017 autumn series has added wind to their sails.
Famously large crowds also gives them credibility, especially in a rugby world so intertwined with commercial interests.
But it is not just the Georgians who threaten Italy’s place – Romania, winners of the 2017 Rugby Europe Championship, also deserve an honourable mention.
Ultimately though, Georgia almost always win the tournament and represent the strongest baton holders of European rugby below the Six Nations level.
If it is ever decided that the old Championship will adopt a promotion/relegation system, the debate over which form it will take could be intense.
The most likely option would be two playoff games, both home and away, between the wooden spoon recipients of the Six Nations and the winners of the Rugby Europe Championship with the aggregate score deciding the overall outcome.
The playoff system ensures that a team like Italy receives a second chance and stops the likes of rugby heartlands with chequered recent histories, such as France, dropping down with a whimper – that would be a disaster for the Six Nations’ accountants.
It is a fairly safe bet that such a feature would not be implemented, at least not initially, every season but rather every two years.
So what are the arguments for keeping the Italians on board?
Well, first of all, the most common cliché – Rome is a nice place for away fans to go for a game of rugby union.
That is true – speaking from personal experience – but plenty of football fans journey to Tbilisi for qualifying campaigns and have found the place to be charming.
The most convincing argument the Italians could put forward is their crowds: while the Georgians frequently top 30,000 fans at the National Stadium, the Azzurri can boast of regularly hitting twice that at their Stadio Olimpico home.
With a developing team (although this is an often-cited excuse in defence of Italy) featuring the likes of enigmatic new fullback Matteo Minozzi, recently named in the Six Nations Player of the Championship shortlist, there is also potential in the ranks.
All to play for then for Italy – they may prop up the table almost every time but they have a real chance to make a statement this autumn to silence the doubters and secure the status quo.
(Featured image: maresaDOs/flickr)