Italy coach Conor O'Shea has backed World Rugby's plans for the 'Nations Championship' and insists his side will be ready for any scenario involving promotion and relegation if the new annual competition is introduced.
World Rugby moved to clarify its position Wednesday over the format of a new, 12-team, annual international tournament which it plans to introduce in 2022.
Despite original reports detailing a closed-shop model and without Pacific Island involvement, World Rugby confirmed it is planning a competition with a two-division format, based on meritocracy with the prospect of promotion and relegation at its forefront. The tournament would include the Six Nations and a newly expanded six-team Rugby Championship, but would offer pathways for those teams outside to force their way into the league.
Italy last won a Six Nations Test in 2015 and are up against it when they travel to Twickenham against England. They are frequently bracketed in the Six Nations relegation-promotion debate but O'Shea insists his team are improving and will be ready to mix it with the world's best in the Nations Championship.
"I think it's [plans for Nations Championship] quite exciting from what I've seen," O'Shea said. "The one thing we need to do is to grow the game. If we just have the couple of rich kids winning everything we don't have a game. That's at club level and international level. We need to protect and grow the game. I love the game of rugby.
"If it comes in two or three years and they are talking about World League promotion and relegation play-offs if that's what it is we'll play to the rules and don't bet against Italy."
World Rugby meet on March 14 to discuss the latest proposed structure and promotion-relegation will be one of the subjects at the top of the agenda. At the moment both the Six Nations and the four-team Rugby Championship are closed-shops but in the new format, nations outside of the top 12 would be offered a chance to force their way into the top league.
The newly proposed structure sees each nation play 11 matches and those finishing with the fewest points from the Six Nations and Rugby Championship groupings would then face a play-off match. If, for example, England finish last out of the Six Nations in 2022, they would then play the best-placed second-division European side in a one-off match where the winner would secure a spot in the following year's Nations Championship. The same would then occur in the Rugby Championship side of the 12-team tournament.
It is a controversial aspect of plans to expand the game and World Rugby's statement on Wednesday conceded "not all unions are presently in favour of immediate promotion and relegation" but went on to reiterate its belief in a new system that offers a "pathway for all".
And O'Shea, who took charge of Italy in 2015, has long insisted his side deserve their spot in the Six Nations and would welcome any changes introducing a two-tier format.
"Just tell us the rules and we'll play it and make sure the game grows," O'Shea said. "It's what is good for the game. I don't know when it's proposed to start -- is it '22? With what we're doing in Italy I'd be quite comfortable that, whether it's me here or someone else here, we have a bloody good team in the making here.
"For Sergio [Parisse], Leo Ghiraldini, Alessandro [Zanni] we want to make some memories in the short term but I know the group that is coming together. It is going to be together for quite some time. There are some young kids coming up who are in the right structure now.
"We play for the future of Italian rugby every day we go out on the pitch. We play to win now but we're playing for the future. I'm really comfortable where this team can go."