Comment: next year’s Rugby World Cup needs a radical rethink now

Trouble-hit qualifying competition should be scrapped and finals expanded from 12 to 16 teams.

Ireland and Scotland are due to meet in the World Cup qualifying competition. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk
Ireland and Scotland are due to meet in the World Cup qualifying competition. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk

THIS week’s decision to postpone the European qualifying competition for the 2021 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand is just the latest setback to preparations for the global tournament. With no new dates set for that European competition, in which Scotland, Italy and Ireland will all participate, there is real doubt about whether the repechage tournament to decide the final qualifying country will take place as scheduled in April.

Despite that uncertainty, the organisers seem poised to go ahead with the draw for the World Cup itself on 20th November, a week on Friday. However, there is still time for them to reconsider and come up with a bold alternative which would both take account of the continuing restrictions posed by the Covid pandemic, and come up with a fairer and more attractive plan for the finals. Three key decisions should be made:

  1. Scrap the repechage tournament
  2. Increase the number of teams from 12 to 16, and
  3. Then proceed with the RWC draw only once the new list of qualifiers has been finalised.

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To date, nine teams have already qualified for the 12-nation tournament. Seven are through by virtue of their ranking at the last World Cup in 2017 (New Zealand, England, France, USA, Canada, Australia, and Wales) and two have come through regional qualifying (South Africa and Fiji).

The other three places are due to be filled by:

  • the winners of the European qualifier (in which Spain are most likely to join Scotland, Ireland and Italy)
  • the winners of the Asian qualifier (to be contested by Japan, Kazakhstan, and Hong Kong)
  • and the winner of the repechage tournament involving the second ranked in the European and Asian qualifiers, plus the winners of play-offs between Samoa and Tonga, and Kenya and Colombia.

However, the Asian tournament, originally scheduled for March, has been postponed several times and is currently only pencilled in for January. As stated above, the European qualifiers are also without dates, as is Rugby Europe’s pre-qualifying tournament that will decide whether Spain, Russia or the Netherland joins Ireland, Italy and Scotland. And curiously, the Samoa-Tonga match, scheduled for November 14th, will be played in New Zealand and for health reasons will only involve New Zealand residents.

Given those uncertainties, it makes perfect sense to simplify qualifying – and the best way to do that would be by adding four more teams to the finals. In fact, not only would that be simpler, it would also avoid the exclusion of some of the best teams in the world. Italy are seventh, Ireland eighth, Spain tenth and Scotland 11th, yet as things stand only two of that quartet will get through to the finals.

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So far at least, there has been no concerted move by those countries to lobby for a 16-team World Cup. Scottish Rugby, for example, responded to the postponement of qualifying by offering a quote from Gemma Fay, its head of girls’ and women’s rugby. “We will continue to work closely with all relevant parties to ensure there is a credible and fair qualification process in place for the Rugby World Cup 2021,” she said.

Of course, what seems fair and credible to one governing body may look unfair and lacking in credibility to another. But let’s face it, the idea behind the repechage tournament should have been regarded as bizarre even in ordinary times. Name us a World Cup in any sport in which the qualifier is tantamount to a mini-world cup, featuring teams from four continents.

And apart from the idea itself, its location also seems problematic. As the RWC is set to be played in New Zealand, why also have the qualifier in the same location? The fact that New Zealand has been largely exempt from the pandemic might be a reason for that choice, but there are a number of serious arguments against that.

New Zealand is by a margin the most inconvenient destination for the teams involved, barring of course Samoa or Tonga. A repechage tournament there would be a very heavy commitment for all the other teams, as they consist mostly of amateur players who already struggle to juggle their rugby with work and other demands.

It would be particularly problematic for the European team that would have just completed the Six Nations, plus possibly a very hard fixture with Spain (this is assuming that the 2021 Six Nations games between Ireland, Italy and Scotland will also count as RWC qualifiers). And playing the qualifier in New Zealand would be tantamount to giving Samoa or Tonga home advantage, as most of their players seem to be based there.

This might prove decisive if New Zealand were also spared the second wave of the pandemic, which by now it is clear will heavily affect rugby in Europe over the winter. If Samoa or Tonga were able to pursue their preparation unaffected, this might seriously unbalance the qualification process.

Given the situation, scrapping the repechage tournament seems to be the only realistic option. If done on its own, that would pose the problem of how to select the final team to make up the dozen originally planned. But as it happens, it would make much more sense to increase that number to 16, given that some of the strongest teams would be damaged by the current format.

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How to select the additional teams? One solution might be to send straight to New Zealand the four teams that would have qualified for the repechage tournament, plus the third ranked in the European qualifier. This would mean that either Kenya or Colombia would go through to the finals. Or, given their low ranking, one of them might be asked to play off against the bottom ranked side from the European qualifiers.

But whatever selection procedure is adopted, one thing is perfectly clear: by upping the number of teams to 16, the World Cup will be fairer and more inclusive than if it stuck to 12 teams and tried to go ahead with such a troubled qualifying process.

And however an increased number of teams was arrived at, it would also create the opportunity to rethink a seeding system which already looks anomalous.

The current plan looks like this:

  • Band 1 (the top tier) – New Zealand, England, Canada
  • Band 2 – France, Australia, USA
  • Band 3 – Wales, Europe 1, South Africa
  • Band 4 – Asia 1, Fiji, Final Qualifier winner

While it is customary to draw the RWC pools before all the places have been assigned, it is quite unusual for several highly ranked teams to still be competing for qualification at the time of the draw.
This is what’s happening right now, which generates a few oddities. For instance, if Japan won the Asian qualifier, as looks likely, the lowest band would include a higher ranked team than Band 3 side South Africa. And in the case of a European team winning the final qualifier, there would be two higher ranked teams in the lowest band.

Considering that access to the quarter-finals will be secured by the two best-performing teams among those ranked third in their pool, it’s not difficult to see how the current arrangement might distort the competition.

Apart from avoiding the exclusion of some strong teams, and broadening the inclusion of developing rugby nations, an enlarged formula would also facilitate the formation of more balanced pools in the final tournament. Below we can see how a 16-team arrangement might look like, based on the January 2020 rankings. There would be far less imbalance than in the previous format, and the qualification process to the quarter finals would be much more straightforward.

  • Band 1 – New Zealand, England, Canada, France
  • Band 2 – Australia, USA, Wales, Europe 1
  • Band 3 – Europe 2, Europe 3, Asia 1, South Africa (or Europe 4)
  • Band 4 – Fiji, Asia 2, Samoa/Tonga, Kenya/Colombia (or South Africa)

Would this format be more costly than the current one? Only marginally, as all of the newly admitted teams but one would have to go to NZ in the spring to compete in the repechage anyway, according to the current plan.

Would there be too many imbalanced games? There would definitely be some,  but there have often been games like that in the men’s tournaments too.

Of course, re-arranging plans in such a drastic way with just one year to go may look daunting. But we are living through times that have required all of us to adapt very quickly to changing (and threatening) conditions. And if there is a country that can do that for a rugby competition, it is New Zealand.


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Mario is a professor of sociology at the University of Trento, Italy, a long standing member of Boroughmuir RFC, and a regular contributor on women’s rugby for the Italian monthly Allrugby.

3 Comments

  1. I seem to remember that one of the reasons why there are only 12 teams in the tournie is the worry about mismatches and therefore player welfare.

    Even with 12, there were some pretty big scorelines last time round.

    If you increase the number of teams, how do you overcome the player welfare concerns?

    • You’re correct, that was the argument against expansion to 16, but it does not stand up, for various reasons:
      1. Generally speaking, there is no obvious correlation between big scores and injury risks: e.g., the Italian boys lost 101-3 to NZ in the 1999 RWC and 101-0 to the Boks the previous June, yet they were not physically inferior (may be slower and less powerful, but not to the point of being physically at risk);
      2. More specifically, two of the teams that would be added to the competition would be either 6Ns teams or Spain, surely not walkovers; another should be Samoa, whose players do not look exactly frail; Kazkhistan I do not know, but they are more or less on the same plan as Hong Kong, who have already been there anyway; Kenya/Colombia would probably be the weakest, and there would be a strong case for a final playoff, as we suggested, against the bottom ranked team in the European qualifier.
      3. With a 16 team solution there would be one “weak” team for each pool; most important, games involving this team would not affect qualification to the quarter finals. In the current format, you might end up with a pool involving, say, Ireland and Spain, and another with South Africa and Fiji. Hardly a balanced solution, with due respect.
      So I would dare to say that players’ health plays a very small role here. Ciao.

  2. Really interesting article and no disagreement from me. Although you asked for another sport with a similar qualifier – this isn’t too dissimilar to what happened with the qualifying for the men’s Cricket World Cup, which also managed to screw over Scotland! But I would hope and expect that the women’s RWC wouldn’t be motivated by keeping the number of teams to a minimum, excluding a number of teams that deserve a place whatever the detriment to the sport more widely, in order to maximise the number of games played by the 3 big teams who bring in the most TV audience….. It was so mishandled, definitely not one to copy

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