Sport

GLOBAL SPORT REFORMS

World Rugby announces expanded World Cup and new Nations League

World Rugby announces expanded World Cup and new Nations League
Rodrigo Marta of Portugal is tackled by Vinaya Habosi of Fiji during the Rugby World Cup France 2023 match between Fiji and Portugal at Stadium de Toulouse on 8 October 2023 in Toulouse, France. (Photo: Stu Forster / Getty Images)

There will also be a new, annual expanded Pacific Nations Cup competition in 2024 featuring Canada, Fiji, Japan, Samoa, Tonga and the United States.

The World Rugby Council has approved a new aligned international calendar, an expanded 24-team men’s World Cup and a top division of 12 teams in a biennial Nations League concept from 2026 that will have promotion and relegation – but only from 2030.

It is a major reform of a sport that is struggling to provide meaningful opportunities to smaller unions, and comes at a time when sides such as Portugal and Fiji have shown the promise of so-called Tier Two sides at the World Cup in France.

The 2027 World Cup in Australia will expand from the current 20 to 24 teams, split into six first-round groups each containing four sides. There will be a round of 16 added and, despite more competing sides, the tournament will be shortened from seven weeks to six.

“This incredible Rugby World Cup 2023 tournament has demonstrated the passion and potential that lies beyond the top 10 or 12 nations,” World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont said in a media release on Tuesday.

“It is not acceptable to accept the status quo; not acceptable to do nothing.”

Duane Vermeulen of South Africa during the Rugby World Cup 2023 Pool B match between South Africa and Tonga at Stade Vélodrome on 1 October 2023 in Marseille, France. (Photo: Steve Haag / Gallo Images / Getty Images)

The Nations League format has yet to be revealed but will see a 12-team top division comprising sides from the Six Nations and Rugby Championship, and reportedly Japan and Fiji, meeting every two years in the July and November international windows.

There will be a second division with a further 12 teams, which will be run by World Rugby. From 2030, there will be promotion and relegation between the two.

There will also be a new, annual expanded Pacific Nations Cup competition in 2024 featuring Canada, Fiji, Japan, Samoa, Tonga and the United States.

World Rugby said the changes had been made to allow those nations greater access to play elite opposition, but there has been criticism that the initial “closed shop” nature of the Nations League will hinder this. 

This was the issue raised by every Tier Two coach after their teams went out of the 2023 World Cup, with all of them saying they would be competitive at tournaments only if they got more opportunities to play the top teams.

World Rugby said that in the years when the Nations League was not played, there would be “a significant uplift in the number of crossover matches between unions in the respective divisions”. 

“We now look forward to an exciting new era for our sport commencing in 2026,” Beaumont said. 

“An era that will bring certainty and opportunity for all. An era that will support the many, not the few, and an era that will supercharge the development of the sport beyond its traditional and often self-imposed boundaries.”

There will also be a first dedicated international release window in the women’s game from 2026, with a review of the global calendar and competition structures promised in the future.

World Rugby also said there would be a “commitment to more effectively manage player load and welfare in the fast-evolving women’s game”. Reuters/DM

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  • Penny Philip says:

    This move will be a good one for the health of Rugby worldwide.

  • Steve Davidson says:

    “This incredible Rugby World Cup 2023 tournament has demonstrated the passion and potential that lies beyond the top 10 or 12 nations,”

    Really, Beaumont? When – regular thrashings? Way too long, and twisted to support your home country! When the best games are the quarter finals then you know something is wrong so don’t fool yourself. All you and your mates care about is the increased money flow, not the rugby itself. If you’d think a bit deeper and maybe create two tiers for the RWC and allow the winner of that second tier to play against one of the tier one teams, I’d believe you, but I don’t. Seeing as you allowed this RWC to be stolen from SA, and the ridiculous kit the Boks had to wear thanks to your colour blindness, I’m afraid I don’t believe a single word you say.

  • jason du toit says:

    the first opportunity for a team promoted from division two to play in the top division: 2032. NINE years from now.

    plus, all commercial rights will sit with the six nations and rugby championship unions, meaning whoever is in the relegation zone (the two bottom teams, most likely fiji and japan to start) will never see any financial benefit (which could be used to strengthen their game). imagine being portugal and getting promoted. since 2023 you have played a top team a grand total of four times (in the 2027 and 2031 world cups) and now you suddenly have to perform in a league against the top teams. and any commercial rights to your hard-earned spot in the top league go to other people.

    this is a start, but a rather wimpy start. hopefully world rugby will add to it and create opportunities for tier two teams to play stronger teams more frequently.

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