Forget England’s spectacular draw with the All Blacks or Ireland and France who cemented their status at the top of the Rugby World Rankings this weekend.
Instead, raise a glass of Portuguese or Georgian wine to celebrate two historic results that raise new questions about the future structures of the international game in Europe and beyond.
Even seen in the microcosm, the significance of Portugal’s final penalty in Dubai, which won them the final spot in next year’s Men’s World Cup at the expense of the United States, was considerable. So did Georgia’s victory over Wales, with a monumental final scrum for the Lelos earning a famous 13-12 victory in Cardiff. Put the two together and the tectonic plates of world rugby would appear to be shifting.
Making it a perfect week for representatives of all major unions to discuss the global calendar and, in particular, the finer details of the League of Nations proposals that have been on the table for months.
Thursday will see a key meeting on the subject, with the countdown to the “new” tournament – essentially a streamlining of the July and August windows – becoming a reality. The idea is quite simple, with Six Nations teams joining Australia, Argentina, Fiji, New Zealand, South Africa and Japan in a 12-team event that will be played in the years outside the World Cup and Lions tour, from 2026. the teams would play three summer games against three different opponents before meeting the other three southern nations at home in the fall. A potential November “final” between the two pool winners would then follow.
The devil, however, is very present in the details. A key proposal, finding high-ranking support behind the scenes, is not to relegate or promote from the ‘elite’ of 12 teams until 2030. Apparently the reason for this is that the tournament needs time to get to bed commercially and that potential promoted teams also need time to become truly competitive.
It doesn’t make sense if you’re from Georgia. If they can win in Wales, having also beaten Italy 28-19 in Tbilisi in July, are people really saying they’re not good enough? Or, coming to that, not worthy of admission to the Six Nations itself? As their coach Levan Maisashvili told the Daily Mail, when asked if his side were knocking on the door at Six Nations: “I think we’ve kicked the door down now.”
Given that Maisashvili was in a coma and near death last year after contracting Covid-19 in South Africa, the Georgian story is poignant on many levels. It may not be the best time in history to have a land border with Russia but, when it comes to rugby, their progress is increasingly evident.
20-year-old Lyonnais Davit Niniashvili is among the most promising young players in Europe and referee Nika Amashukeli has also deserved to raise the hierarchy of referees.
Yet instead of being encouraged to push even further, Georgia’s first two games in 2023 will be against Germany and the Netherlands in the European Rugby Championship, the rung below the Six Nations. . Rather than build on their famous Wales result against similarly caliber opposition, their ability to build that momentum into the World Cup will inevitably be compromised.
If that sounds unfair, that’s because it is. Imagine the following scenario, however. Georgia are having a blast at the World Cup in France and their powerful scrum upset a slow-starting Australia on the opening weekend at the Stade de France. Given the Wallabies’ loss to Italy in Florence earlier this month, the outcome can no longer be considered entirely inevitable. Suddenly, the Lelos would be just a few wins over currently lower-ranked Fiji and Portugal away from reaching their final pool game on pole position. And their opponents in Nantes for this crucial match? Why, none other than their new friends, Wales.
In other words, it’s not impossible that Georgia could enter the last eight of the premier world tournament unbeaten while effectively being considered a second-tier rugby nation for at least seven years. Which seems, at best, illogical. Maisashvili, for his part, is getting tired of repeating the same old arguments. “Every year we start with the Rugby Europe competition – there is a big difference. It’s a joke… rugby is not just 10 countries. We had eight players injured against Wales and a 19-year-old player For 40 minutes Wales have yet to score, and it is also clear that the traditional divisions in rugby are rapidly narrowing.
Anyone who has seen Portugal’s ultra-talented full-back Nuno Sousa Guedes against the United States knows that talent isn’t just the preserve of the most established unions. And what about how Italy attacked the Wallabies? Of all the awards distributed by World Rugby this weekend, the best player award given to Ange Capuozzo was particularly deserved.
We haven’t even mentioned proud World Cup qualifiers Chile and Uruguay or Spain, or the potentially strengthened USA as they seek to be competitive at their own 2031 World Cup. When the main rugby officials meet this week, they must prioritize the many, not the few.