We are two rounds into the 2022 Six Nations and while there’s plenty still to be decided in the Championship, the destination of the Wooden Spoon is already known. For the seventh straight year and 17th time in the last two decades, Italy are on course to finish bottom of the Six Nations table, being priced at 1/100 to prop up the table.
Since being added to what was then the Five Nations in 2000, Italy have won only 12 of their 110 matches and are currently riding a 34-game losing streak that stretches back to 2015.
Italy’s inability to even provide a competitive opponent to the other five teams has led to countless hours of debate on what the Azzurri bring to the Six Nations and whether they should be replaced.
There are plenty of nations who would like to join rugby’s most lucrative tournament outside the World Cup but what are the chances of Italy being replaced and how can they hang on to their spot?
The Future Looks Bright
Let’s start with the case for the defence of Italy’s inclusion in the Six Nations. Getting the obvious “Rome makes for a great away day” argument out of the way, it’s worth remembering that it can take a long time for teams to become competitive at international level.
When France were added to the tournament in 1910 it took them ten years to win their first game, while their first share of a title didn’t arrive until 1954. Italy aren’t as big a rugby nation as France and so are unlikely to ever win a title but there are signs they could soon be far more competitive.
They have proved stiffer opposition to France and England so far this year than in recent seasons with their set-piece, in particular, looking greatly improved.
There’s talent outside the pack in this squad too with fly-half Paolo Garbisi and wing Federico Mori both 21 and likely to be good staples of the Italy team for years to come.
The next generation are fast coming through too with Italy’s Under-20 side having beaten England’s youngsters for the first time ever just last weekend. They beat Scotland last year and have got the better of Wales in the recent past.
They represent the result of a big change behind the scenes in Italian rugby to revive the sport after years of neglect and as we’ve seen with the current France team, a good crop of youngsters can change your fortunes very quickly.
A Trip to Tbilisi?
It’s reasonable to argue that Italy have had 20 years to develop a decent team and not done it so why be optimistic about the current generation coming through, and that would be fair. They’ve had their chance to make their mark against Europe’s elite nations and they should step aside and let someone else have a go.
Georgia views itself as a viable alternative to Italy and are desperate to be given their shot. They’ve dominated the Rugby European Championship – rugby’s second-tier northern hemisphere tournament – for the best part of 20 years and currently sit higher than Italy in the world rankings.
However, when the Georgians have had their chance, such as last year’s Autumn Nations Cup and World Cups, they’ve failed to impress. England, Wales, Ireland, France and Scotland have all brushed them aside since the last World Cup.
There’s also the financial side to consider. A trip to Tbilisi doesn’t hold as much appeal as Rome, while the addition of Georgia is unlikely to fill the coffers of the other Nations further from a commercial standpoint.
South Africa Making Six Nations Move
The biggest threat to Italy’s spot in the Six Nations doesn’t come from Europe or even this hemisphere but rather from south of the equator.
South Africa are laying the foundations for a move into the Six Nations, starting with the addition of their professional sides to the United Rugby Championship in an attempt to prove a trip to Durban is as easy as getting to Dublin.
Covid has scuppered those plans so far but if they can make a go of the competition then it would be an important step to integrating South African rugby into the northern hemisphere.
The bond between SA Rugby and the Six Nations is set to be further strengthened by CVC, a private equity firm and the strategic partners of the Six Nations. They are in talks to conclude a deal with SA Rugby, potentially adding them to their growing rugby portfolio.
For now, South Africa are committed to playing in the Rugby Championship until 2025 but beyond that, their future looks to lie in the Six Nations.
The South Africans are coming it seems and what an addition to the tournament it will be, to have the current world champions join the party. However, their addition shouldn’t come at Italy’s expense if rugby is serious about growing the global game.
*All odds correct at time of writing