Eddie Jones thinks it shouldn’t happen, New Zealand insists it cannot happen, and tournament organizers say there’s no sign of it happening.
The possibility of the Six Nations rugby tournament expanding to include world champion South Africa would be the most stunning development in the sport in years, a game-changer for both the northern and southern hemispheres.
British newspaper The Daily Mail reported Saturday that negotiations have taken place that will lead to the Springboks joining a new championship in 2024. It would contain seven nations, with England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France and Italy already competing.
It would also mean South Africa leaving the four-nation Rugby Championship in the southern hemisphere, which also includes New Zealand, Australia and Argentina.
World Rugby, the sport’s governing body, said it would not be commenting on the reports, but others are.
Mark Robinson, the recently hired chief executive of New Zealand Rugby, said the Springboks are committed to being part of Sanzaar — the body that oversees the Rugby Championship and Super Rugby — until 2025 and they are “people that we trust.”
“We’re very comfortable in our relationship and South Africa’s relationship with Sanzaar,” Robinson was quoted as telling Radio Sport in New Zealand. “Like us, they’ve signed agreements with their broadcasters through 2025 to be involved with Sanzaar. And as recently as this week, we were on calls talking about the future of our competitions at Super level and international level. So Sanzaar and certainly South Africa were very engaged in those conversations.
“They are people that we trust, they are very honest and they’ve been great partners over the last 25 years. We would like to think that we would be privy to those sorts of comments or conversations if they had been had.”
Tournament organizers have also played down the reports, saying the Six Nations Council “has had no discussions regarding South Africa’s inclusion” in the competition. They have previously rejected calls for promotion and relegation to be introduced in the tournament so the likes of Georgia and Romania — the leading second-tier countries in European rugby — could challenge for a place with Italy, which regularly finishes in last place in the Six Nations.
Meanwhile, Jones, the Australian-born England coach, has advised against any tinkering of the format of what he called “the greatest rugby tournament in the world.”
“Why would you want to add other teams that are going to decrease the level of competition?” Jones said, using the expansion of Super Rugby from 12 teams to its current number of 15 as a cautionary tale.
“I can only talk from experience,” Jones added. “Super Rugby was the golden egg of rugby — brilliant, 12 teams, competitive. As soon as it had gone to 14 and 15, it had lost its allure.”
Jones said what makes the Six Nations so special is “the history of the relationships between the nations.”
“Someone was giving me a history lesson on Scotland and the number of different things that have happened in the rivalry with England,” he said. “So there’s a lot of meaning to a lot of people for a game like this.
“The competition is much harder contested than the World Cup. It’s become a lot more physical and it’s only going to get more so.”
The tournament started off as a championship between the “home nations” of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, before France was added to the competition. The most recent expansion came when the addition of Italy turned the Five Nations to the Six Nations in 2000.
Six Nations members last year rejected a proposal for a new 12-team World Rugby Nations Championship, which would initially have merged the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship — while adding Japan and the United States — and provided greater context to the international game.
The top European countries feared the potential economic impact of relegation from the league.
Playing in a northern-hemisphere competition would align South Africa with countries closer to its time zone.
Two South African club teams, the Cheetahs and the Southern Kings, already play in Europe. They dropped out of Super Rugby in 2017 and joined an expanded Pro14 league, contested between teams from Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80