Italy’s performances during the 2022 Six Nations have reopened the debate as to the validity of their position in the tournament.
As of writing, they have lost all three of their games by an average of 37 points, scoring just a single try and conceding 19.
The Azzurri will point out that they are a work in progress with an eye on next year’s World Cup under Kiwi coach Kieran Crowley.
Also in Italy’s favour is that they have a fine crop of young players emerging, as demonstrated by their under-20s beating England last month. However, the performances of their senior team have been far from what is required – so who could take their place?
Georgia Leading the Pack
As far as the statistics go, Georgia would be the side to take Italy’s chair at European rugby’s top table. The Lelos sit a place above the Italians in the world rankings and are garnering national attention, with rugby union now the national sport.
In 2021, plans were announced to install 100 new pitches to help find the next Mamuka Gorgodze, the gargantuan former Montpellier and Toulon back row who earned the nickname ‘Gorgodzilla’.
Gorgodze is his country’s record try scorer with 27 in 75 games but they have a rising star in wing Akaki Tabutsadze, who has 15 tries in just 17 caps.
The 24-year-old still plays domestically with the Lelo Saracens but the national team also have a number of players plying their trade in France, while centre Giorgi Kveseladze is at Gloucester.
Levan Maisashvili’s side is in a similar position to Italy pre-2000. They are usually better than their opposition but need greater exposure of playing tier one nations to make the next step.
Portugal Providing Competition
While Georgia have reached the last five World Cups, and it looking likely that they will make that six in a row next year, Portugal have made the tournament just once.
That 2007 competition gave them the chance to face New Zealand and while Os Lobos failed to kick on, there are signs they are on the comeback trail.
Portugal are coached by Patrice Lagisquet and there is a significant Gallic feel to their set-up.
Figures place the number of Portuguese immigrants living in France at over half a million and having seen the football team benefit from that diaspora through the likes of Raphael Guerreiro and Adrien Silva, the rugby union side are now following suit in the form of Samuel Marques and Francisco Fernandes, who are amongst those who are French-born.
A second-ever overall victory in the 2022 Rugby Europe Championship, a tournament Georgia have won a record 13 times, would potentially see them move into the Six Nations conversation, especially as the winner would likely be promoted.
They recently drew 25-25 in Tbilisi and more showings of that ilk would only boost their hopes.
Spain Surging On
However, it is Spain who lead that competition but the work starts now, with Portugal heading to Madrid on Sunday and a trip to Tbilisi on the final weekend.
Again, they have several French-born players in their squad. The Catalan and Basque regions straddle both countries and are real hotbeds of both codes.
The next fortnight could be huge for their development but they have made steady progress in recent years, rising to 15th in the world rankings, five places above Portugal and two clear of Romania.
Former England coach Andy Robinson is the current man in charge of the Romanians and of all those hoping for a promotion, the Stejarli have the most significant historical pedigree.
They beat Wales both home and away in the 1980s but lack the same infrastructure that made them so successful in previous decades.