Six Nations chief backs struggling Italy and keeps door shut on South Africa

·3 min read
  • New event for emerging nations to fit in international calendar

  • Ben Morel says: ‘I don’t believe there’s a question of credibility’

The Six Nations chief executive, Ben Morel, has denied that Italy’s dismal recent record is damaging the credibility of the tournament and kept the door shut on South Africa joining Europe’s premier rugby event.

Speaking at the launch of the 2022 men’s edition, which begins a week on Saturday, Morel rejected the idea of promotion and relegation in the Six Nations, but said the organisation is instead putting “all our resources” into plans for a new event within existing international windows.

Related: England captain Owen Farrell ruled out of entire Six Nations with ‘freak’ injury

Italy’s last victory came against Scotland in 2015 and they endured a torrid campaign last year, with five heavy defeats accruing a points difference of minus–184.

Morel, however, insisted that they deserve their place. “They’ve got young talent and they’re performing well at the Under-20s regularly,” he said. “The conversion to the senior team has been their struggle. They’re putting a lot more resources behind it, and we’ve got all the faith in their management.

“This is a year they’ve got three away games [in France, Ireland and Wales], so we need to be mindful, but they’ve got a young, exciting team. They know what they need to do. I don’t believe there’s a question of credibility [for the tournament].”

Asked if promotion and relegation had been considered, Morel said: “No. It’s not on the current agenda. But we understand there needs to be a pathway for emerging nations to elite rugby.”

It is not just emerging nations, such as Japan, that have been mentioned as potential entrants: the world champions South Africa have also been linked with a place at European rugby’s top table. But Morel said he remains “extremely cautious on the topic” of expansion. The priority is to agree significant changes to the existing international calendar, and that conversations are “active” with World Rugby and unions about a structured tournament beginning in 2024, after next year’s Rugby World Cup.

“In order to give a stronger pathway to the emerging nations, whoever they may be in the north or southern hemisphere, there could be some adaptation to the July or the November windows,” Morel said. “That could give more competitive matches to those unions … to give them the experience that they need to get to that level. I think a priority right now would be to have a more structured July and November.

“Our current strategic priority is we experienced a really successful Autumn Nations Series … we believe that we could enhance the sporting narrative and give every game a meaning and a link, hopefully culminating in some sort of final weekend.

“In order for this to happen post-World Cup timing, we’d need to have this finalised before the summer. So these conversations are active. [There are] a lot of people to discuss it with, a lot of consultation … hopefully a good common solution can be identified. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”