The Six Nations Championship is one of the big highlights of the sporting calendar.
The unique timing of the event, from the start of February through to the second half of March, means that many sport fans see it as a bridge that takes you from the cold depths of winter to the early signs of spring.
It plays out over five weekends, spread out to fill the best part of two months with a couple of weekend breaks scheduled to help players maintain a high level of performance, and give spectators a breather too!
It is never less than fiercely competitive and capacity crowds are very much the norm.
Since the expansion to six nations with the inclusion of Italy at the start of this century, there have been regular discussions about how the tournament could continue to evolve in the future.
Read about some of the suggestions made, and where the tournament may be heading in the coming years.
Most discussions around the future of the Six Nations tend to start with the fate of Italy.
The record of the Azzurri has not been stellar since they joined the tournament at the start of this century. 17 wooden spoons and only 13 wins hardly makes a persuasive case for their continued presence at the European top table.
However, after several false starts, the future is starting to look bright, with the dramatic Italian win over Wales last year compelling evidence that maybe the focus on developing young talent is starting to bear fruit.
There are also persuasive non-rugby arguments as to why Italy should stay in the tournament. A lot of the Six Nations is about the supporter experience, and Rome is now a key biennial date in the calendar for most international rugby fans. Any threat to that would surely face strong opposition.
Georgia on my mind
Discussions about Italy tend to feature suggestions that they be replaced by Georgia.
The recent Georgian playing performance adds some weight to this idea. They have beaten Italy and Wales, and only narrowly lost to Samoa and Argentina, in the last couple of years. They have also dominated the second-tier European tournament, winning it in nine of the last 10 years.
A straight swap will meet some resistance, however. The flight time to Tbilisi out of London is six hours. From Dublin, it is almost quicker to fly to New York than it is to fly there.
This would inevitably raise logistical issues, and hardly makes it conducive to traveling spectators limited by the need to return to work on Monday morning.
There is also the suggestion that while Georgia are good, they are not that good, so the outcome may be swapping one perennial wooden-spoonist with another.
Seven nations armies
So, if Georgia deserve a place and dropping Italy appears an extreme step, the argument then follows: why not accommodate both and expand to seven teams?
This would certainly appear to be an obvious solution and would expand the top-tier rugby map across Europe. It is also fair to both Georgia and Italy and would rectify the current home/away fixture balance, with each nation enjoying three home games each year.
However, it could end up stretching the Six Nations outside the current timescale comfort-zone. At present, it is scheduled between rounds of the Heineken Cup, so adding an extra weekend of fixtures could jeopardise that, and add even more to the workload for players.
A two-division solution has been suggested
The next suggestion is to expand the Six Nations to two divisions of six teams, with promotion and relegation between the two.
The Rugby Europe International Championship provides a ready-made set up that could potentially be grafted onto the Six Nations to fulfil this idea.
A welcome knock-on effect would be that the Championship would get more publicity and promotion among a largely unaware rugby audience, expanding the interest in rugby across much of Europe.
However, would the other top tier nations be entirely happy with a structure that saw them face relegation after one sub-par season, alongside the consequent loss of income that would entail?
The looming presence of South Africa
The recent creation of the United Rugby Championship and expansion of the Heineken Cup to accommodate South African teams has inevitably led to speculation that the Six Nations could expand to include the current world champions.
According to a Daily Mail article at the start of 2022, it seemed already a done deal with South Africa set to replace Italy in 2025.
It would massively increase gate and television revenues, and would clearly be popular with rugby authorities. Having the three-times world champions as regular participants would further increase the quality of rugby on offer.
But South African participation would have its downsides
South African joining the Six Nations would be problematic, however.
For example, it is unlikely that the other major southern hemisphere rugby nations would be happy about such a move, and they would have justified concerns about the future viability of the Rugby Championship.
It would devalue other matches in the rugby calendar, such as the autumn internationals, and even future Lions tours.
It would also send a strong signal to other European nations that top-quality rugby is a closed shop, with the consequent loss of enthusiasm and motivation.
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