It seems the dust is still settling from European rugby’s most recent restructure, which saw a much revamped (and, in all honesty, much fairer) system of European qualification from the Pro 12. As it stands, each participating nation is guaranteed that, as a minimum, their best performing team in this league is represented in Europe’s premier competition.
However, this year, Italian outfits Zebre and Treviso currently occupy positions 11 and 12 in the league. Therefore, it now seems almost certain that the 11th placed team will qualify for the Champions Cup ahead of the team that finishes 7th.
I’ve said many times, I think the inclusion of the Italian teams is very important in this league – not only for their long-term development, and that of their national team, but also for the vibrancy of this cross-border competition. However, I firmly believe only the top 6 teams from the Pro12 should reach the Champions Cup, irrespective of which nations are consequently excluded. It is, after all, the “Champions” Cup, and at present, the likes of Zebre and Treviso are simply unable to compete at that level. Several seasons in the Challenge Cup would no doubt be better for their development, and I believe would actually make them more competitive in the long run.
It’s a debate which has been circulating in the Welsh media since Italy’s hefty loss in the final round of this Six Nations. Indeed, some quarters have questioned Italy’s inclusion in that tournament, too. There have been calls to introduce promotion and relegation to the Six Nations, with both Georgia and Romania having performed consistently well in Europe’s second-tier tournament in recent years. I’m not sure if straight promotion/relegation would work, but perhaps a play-off to determine who is included would work going forward. Perhaps this would drive up standards in the tournament.
That said, I’d hate to imagine a Six Nations tournament without Wales. Is there not a place for tradition in modern sport? Right or wrong, I almost see the Six Nations as a separate entity, steeped in tradition. Perhaps further expansion would be the answer? Only time will tell.
With a mere few weeks of the regular season remaining, it’s the Dragons who remain Wales’ last hope of European silverware, having impressively defeated Gloucester away from home. They now face a trip to Montpellier in the Challenge Cup Semi-finals, and I wish them every success.
Judgement Day IV is also around the corner, a feast of rugby action. We’ll be there!