Six Nations: South Africa plan raises questions - impact on Scotland, what of Italy, travelling fans, careful thought needed

Rugby may still have an image as one of our most traditional sports, but the reality is that it is changing faster than ever.

South Africa visiting Scotland on Six Nations duty could become reality a few years.
South Africa visiting Scotland on Six Nations duty could become reality a few years.

This season, for example, has seen the launch of the United Rugby Championship, with four South African sides joining a dozen from Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Italy. Next season the South Africans will compete in the Champions and Challenge Cups for the first time, making those tournaments bigger, more attractive and almost certainly more lucrative than ever before.

So is the next step to integrate the Springboks into the Six Nations? It is, according to some London-based reports, which have predicted a date of 2025 for South Africa’s national side to quit the Rugby Championship and join the European tournament as a replacement for Italy.

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That is actually a year later than was first predicted by the same sources, so in a sense there is nothing new about those reports. But regardless of the forecast date for implementation, the questions raised remain the same.

The big questions

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What would be the effect if the Six Nations were to unceremoniously boot out one of its members and replace them with another? Would there be any justification other than financial for such a move?

Would Australia, New Zealand and Argentina suffer as a result of losing the South Africans? What would become of Italy if they were left out in the cold, and how short-sighted would such a move be for a global sport still trying to expand beyond its customary power base?

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Closer to home, what would the replacement of Italy by South Africa mean for Scotland? And how many Scots supporters would willingly swap a weekend in Rome for one in Johannesburg?

Not all of those questions have immediate or clear-cut answers, of course – and there is a growing worry that not all of them will even be considered dispassionately by some of the powers that be. Since private equity firm CVC bought a one-seventh stake in the Six Nations, the urge to “grow and develop the game”, as the company put it when the agreement was announced, has taken on an increasingly financial meaning. So too has the drive to “ensure continued development of [the Six Nations] for the benefit of existing fans, and to attract a new more diverse and global fan base”.

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Problems with an Italian job

There may be nothing wrong in itself with the Six Nations growing its income, and of course the more money it had to spare, the more it could put into grass-roots growth. But problems arise if short-term financial gain is viewed as an end in itself, with a blindness towards the long-term health of the sport.

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Those problems could become particularly acute if Italy were jettisoned. Yes, South Africa is a bigger rugby market, and the Italians have failed to fulfil the promise they showed in the early years of the Six Nations. But ditching the Azzurri would still be a major act of self-harm: chopping off a limb when minor surgery to aid their recovery would have sufficed.

The Six Nations would certainly be a tougher tournament to win with the world champions on board, and Scotland would find themselves at or close to the bottom more often than is currently the case. Playing more frequently against tougher opponents can often be a good thing for a team’s development, so there would be no objection on rugby grounds to the Springboks’ inclusion – at least not for as long as there was no relegation from the Six Nations, something that would surely only follow the long-discussed establishment of a second tier involving the likes of Georgia and Romania.

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But, at a time of climate crisis when global air travel is beginning to be discouraged and will almost certainly diminish for some decades to come, there is a coherent argument against geographical expansion of sports events. And, while Six Nations matches at the Olympic Stadium have rarely been classics, the many non-sporting attractions of Rome are within far easier reach for Scottish supporters than South Africa.

There is a long way to go yet before the Springboks’ involvement in one tournament and departure from the other is realised. But if it ever happens, it would constitute a major upheaval to the world game’s two biggest annual events. Some careful thought by the relevant authorities, and some shrewd long-term planning too, would be in order before any rash, financially-motivated decisions are made.

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