I know Italy are nought from four, and have been significantly beaten in all their 2021 Six Nations games, but they should not be leaving the tournament. No, they have not progressed as much as had been hoped in the last two decades. Yes, they have lost 30 Six Nations matches in a row. But finally they have started playing well and trusting youth. Ousting them for Georgia would be a considerable demotion for the Championship.
Italy first floated the idea of joining the Five Nations in the mid 1980s, and they were not accepted until 2000. When they were added, they regularly beating the sides presently in the Rugby Europe Championship (Georgia, Romania etc.) and had had good results against France, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Although Georgia do often win the Rugby Europe Championship, they have not had any noticeable results against full strength Tier 1 sides.
The suggestion to get rid of Italy is also unfair on this current Azzuri team. It is not their fault that the side has underperformed for the last 21 years, especially in the previous World Cup cycle. For too long Italy relied on passion, Sergio Parisse and their opponents being stuffed with pizza to try and help them eke out results. But this has changed.
Under current head coach Franco Smith there has been a personnel overhaul and the mentality of the side has shifted. Italy are now playing to try to win games, rather than to try and not lose them. This change will not bear fruit immediately, but in years to come it will.
Alongside the attitude alteration, Smith has revamped the starting line up in favour of youth. Scrum half Stephen Varney is only 19, and flyhalf Paolo Garbisi and fullback Jacopo Trulla are both 20. Smith has not just picked these young guns because he does not have anyone else to turn to, he has picked them because they are the best players in their position and are only getting better.
Varney adds the desired tempo Italy need, Trulla adds impetus to the attack and in Garbisi, it looks like Italy have stumbled across the real deal. Arguably he has been the fly half of the tournament and although he does not yet have the highlights reel of Finn Russell, consistently playing at this high level there is no reason he will not get there.
New kids on the block combined with newly qualified residency players is Italy’s blueprint. In three or four years they will be a force. Monty Ioane had been on fire for Bennetton and has transferred that form to the international stage, while Igancio Brex has provided security and stability in the midfield.
There is also the huge question as to why promotion and relegation is even being discussed. The Six Nations is a tournament, not a league! There does not have to be a constant chopping and changing from it. Many tournaments across sport, and particularly rugby, have fixed opponents. One of the beauties of the Six Nations is that it is built upon sporting rivalries and risking removing these would be a huge mistake.
The other huge elephant in the room when discussing relegation from the Championship is the unintended consequences of doing so. Although Italy have recently become the prime candidate, it was not always this way. Scotland have finished bottom on a handful of occasions. While the two sides going for the title this year, France and Wales, have also both claimed the wooden spoon, with Les Blues winning at as recently as 2013.
If those calling for the removal of Italy are serious, they also have to be prepared to potentially lose one of the ‘big five’ in the future. This would not just strip out the heart and origins of the tournament, but should England go down then so would the sizeable amount of money they bring to the tournament.
There were times in the past where I would have supported the discussion to have a playoff between the Six Nations and the Rugby Europe Championship, but not at the moment. If there was ever a time to protect and nurture this Italian side it is now. Forget undoing the (small amounts of) progress Italy have made over the last 21 years, do not undo the progress they have made in the last six months, because believe me, the steps have been significant.
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