Why Italian rugby will benefit from Six Nations playoffs

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t negatively surprised and deeply frustrated with how Italy started the Six Nations under Conor O’Shea, in what appears to be one of the closest tournaments in history.

Those 100 points conceded in just 160 minutes of rugby (77 in under an hour and a half) have being painfully digested but, with the trip to Twickenham and the home game against France to come, there’s not much room for bouncing back.

It’s disappointing, plain and simple. At the first break of the Championship, with two home games played, Italy should have been in a better position than last place in the standings; the only team still on zero points and with a poor points differential.

Having said that, I still believe, mainly because of the history between the two nations, the complementary styles of play and the differing strengths, that Italy will have its chance against Scotland, at Murrayfield in March. At the end of the day it may be the only nation able to solve the Edinburgh hoodoo this year.

But the display in those first two games cannot be repeated if Italy are to grow steadily and seriously, looking ahead towards the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

Matteo Ciambelli/NurPhoto via Getty Images

They can’t afford to offer opponents soft tries like those conceded against the All Blacks and Ireland, because every harsh lesson is a step back in the growing process and can lead to a brutal slide down the World Rugby rankings.

Italian rugby must get behind Conor O’Shea, Stephen Aboud and the coaching team, and together they must make sure that there won’t be any further dark pages in the Italian rugby history books.

Since the introduction and expansion of the academy system at under 18 and through the under 16 age grade, Italy has never been as competitive in terms of building a new generation of talent.

Prospects who emerge from the system are now a more complete product than was the case a few years ago but a key issue remains the cultural approach Italians have to rugby.

Italy are a few years away from benefiting from the huge investments that were made in the sport but Aboud and O’Shea are the perfect fit for the project. They need to do everything possible to avoid huge defeats along the way, because it will harm short and medium-term growth.

Matteo Ciambelli/NurPhoto via Getty Images

With that in mind, the revamped Six Nations expansion proposals offers another opportunity for growth.

A year ago I was the first, and probably the only Italian to publicly support a revised Six Nations format, when I called for a playoff between the last team in the Championship and the winner of the European Nations Cup.

Everybody would gain from an expanded tournament. While a Seven Nations is simply impossible to put in place due to the saturated fixture list, a more dynamic change than the introduction of the bonus point system is needed to increase the overall standard.

A playoff would insure that, raising the standards of the participants immediately as they would risk a huge loss in prestige and revenue. It would also bridge the gap between the top tier and second-tier nations; Georgia are already two places above Italy in the World Rugby rankings.

But it should not be Italy, nor Georgia that fill the playoff places automatically. It must be the last-placed team in the Six Nations, against the top team in the Nations Cup.

It would mean that the Six Nations board would be willing to risk the relegation of one of the home nations, but it would also open it up to the millions available with the Georgian project.

The business world used to make evaluations based on trial cases and there lies the big question. What if, in a couple of years, Scotland return to the bottom of the Six Nations table and Romania (or fast growing Russia), emerge from the tier two Nations?

What will happen in terms of economic return and general impact to a tournament without Scotland’s tradition and the Georgian wealth if Italy and Romania joined England, Ireland, Wales and France in the tournament?

These are the reasons, in my mind, why the board are against the playoff system as it stands. So, time is still with the Azzurri, but they must do everything to avoid results like that against Ireland and other teams in 2016.

Source Article from http://www.espn.co.uk/rugby/story/_/id/18746579/how-playoff-raise-six-nations-second-tier-standards
Why Italian rugby will benefit from Six Nations playoffs
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