The Six Nations is the exclusive club for European rugby’s elite, and there is a queue of outsiders eager to force their way in.
Georgia are at the front of that waiting list, climbing above Italy in the world rankings and attracting crowds of more than 50,000 in Tbilisi. They have already qualified for the 2019 World Cup and beaten the likes of Tonga and Fiji, while they will face Wales for the first time in November. Yet it might be some time until their case for inclusion will be properly heard.
Six Nations chief executive John Feehan has dismissed the notion of relegation, defending Italy’s permanent place in the competition despite them propping up the table 11 times in the 17 tournaments since they joined in 2000. The idea of expanding of the Six Nations to seven teams or more has also been met with derision, with those in charge of the global game seemingly content with the status quo. Georgia will not be deterred, however, as head coach Milton Haig explains.
“We can’t control the decision-making process and we understand we won’t be able to influence that apart from being consistent on the rugby field,” he tells BBC Wales Sport.
“If it’s going to cost us a certain amount of money [to join the Six Nations], tell us what it is and we will be able to come back to you with an answer.
“It can be frustrating but our job is to create a conversation and if we can keep the conversation alive then hopefully we can get a bit of support, not only from the media but within the internal structures of the Six Nations.”
Providing the necessary financial support for a team in the Six Nations costs millions, but that would not be a problem for Georgia.
Backed by their government and the billionaire and former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia have the financial muscle to compete with any other nation in world rugby.
The Georgian Rugby Union is investing in its infrastructure and grassroots game and, should the dream of entering the Six Nations become a reality, Haig believes the country could blaze a trail for others.
“If you’re looking at potential, one thing we do know is we’ll be bringing an Eastern European market to the table,” the New Zealander adds.
“Not only would we be watched by our own fans, you can bet other Eastern European nations like Russia and Romania will more than likely tune in too.
“It will be for the greater good of Eastern European rugby. With the support of Mr Ivanishvili and the government, we think we can be sustainable.
“We’d be happy to sign up for a five-year deal. Even if it’s three years, give us three years to prove ourselves on the pitch and commercially, and we’d be pretty confident we could do both.”
Having spent the majority of his coaching career in New Zealand, Haig took on a major project when he moved to Georgia in 2011.
The former scrum-half is an enthusiastic ambassador for Georgian rugby, eager to expose his team to more occasions like their 2015 World Cup encounter with New Zealand in front of 69,187 at Cardiff’s Principality Stadium.
‘Maybe we are not ready’
One of Georgia’s senior players, prop Anton Peikrishvili, strikes a more cautious note. Asked about his country’s prospects of joining the Six Nations, the Cardiff Blues player is a little unsure.
“To be honest, all of the players, we are scared to play against the big teams,” he tells BBC Wales Sport.
“When you see Italy they have a good team but always they are struggling – conceding 50 or 60 points – the players we are like ‘Oh, maybe we are not ready’.
“We need some more Test matches to improve our power but our coach is from New Zealand so he is really ambitious.
“We are just soldiers. We try to follow the general. So, if he [Haig] says this, he thinks the team is ready to play the big games, so the day is coming and we have to be prepared well.”
Georgian team in the Pro12?
If Georgia are to establish themselves as an elite rugby nation, they will need to strengthen their domestic game. The Georgian Rugby Union has held talks with the Pro12 and the southern hemisphere’s Super Rugby about entering a team – similar to Argentina’s Jaguares Super Rugby franchise – and Haig says he is “hopeful” of making that a reality in the long-term future. That could pose logistical difficulties, according to Newport Gwent Dragons head coach Kingsley Jones, who faced Georgia during his time in charge of Russia’s national team between 2012 and 2014.
“I think they’d be a great addition in terms of a place for the supporters to travel to – but it would be a very difficult thing, to play in Tbilisi,” he says.
“You fly from Istanbul and Istanbul to Georgia – that’s a hell of a trip.
“It would be good for their development and they’re certainly a side World Rugby, at national level, are looking to develop. And their club game needs to be involved in a tournament of a high level to help the national team evolve, and also help the leakage of their players into France and other countries.”
Cardiff Blues prop Peikrishvili is an example of that player drain, moving to France to forge his career with Castres and Brive before spells with Ulster and the Blues. The 29-year-old may be uncertain about his country’s short-term ambitions of playing in the Six Nations but, looking further ahead, he would love to represent a Georgian team in a top-tier domestic competition.
“Because all of the Georgian players play in France or even in the UK, when it’s a game we have a camp for maybe one week, so we are not well prepared,” says Peikrishvili.
“We’ll see what happens next, maybe, we are not ready for Pro12, or the company is not ready to add some new teams. If one day it happens I’ll be lucky to say that I can play against them or I can play in the team. We’ll see.”