'Expansive' 24-team Rugby World Cup on horizon but World Rugby aware of need to maintain competitiveness
Next year’s World Cup in Japan could be the last to feature 20 teams, as the governing body looks to expand its horizons and reach out into new territories.
Rugby is minded to follow football’s lead by increasing the number of competing sides at its showpiece event. It could happen as early as France 2023, but almost certainly four years later.
If money and power are considered contributing factors to football’s decision to add 16 teams to its roster for 2026, rugby’s stated intention is to be more inclusive by opening up to emerging nations.
One of the criticisms levelled at the sport is that it has been a closed shop made up of the old-boy founder members.
There was an increase from 16 to 20 teams in the 1999 tournament hosted by Wales. The final stages of qualification for 2019 feature a repechage event in Marseille in late November when Kenya, Germany (who have taken on former England defence coach Mike Ford), Hong Kong and Canada will battle it out in a round-robin format to see who goes through to Japan. Three of those countries have never qualified for a World Cup.
“We’re looking from an expansive point of view rather than reducing things, so it’s just a question of when rather than if,” said Brett Gosper, the World Rugby chief executive. “We haven’t opined yet on 2023 [although the assumption is 20 teams], but we could still change that between now and 2023.
“The tendency for us is to look to expand. It’s growing the global game, getting interest from fans and commercial interest in new markets to grow the sport. We’re definitely in an expansive mindset. You have got to make sure, of course, that you’ve got the teams competitive enough to move to a 24-team tournament.”
There have always been qualms about the competitive quality of the emerging countries were they to be pitted against one of the leading contenders, as has happened in previous tournaments. In the 1995 World Cup in South Africa, Japan were the victims of a record score piled up by New Zealand who ran in 21 tries when winning 145-17 in Bloemfontein. Whoever qualifies from the repechage in Marseille will go into a pool with the All Blacks.
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“We’ll work hard in the period from when that team qualifies to ensure they’ve got all the technical coaches to make sure that team is well coached, well resourced, well trained to ensure that one of our KPI [Key Performance Indicators] of winning margins isn’t blown out by one or two games that team might play,” said Gosper. “We are confident the team that qualifies will be competitive enough, even against the All Blacks.
“This is the most balanced World Cup fixture schedule the Tier Twos have ever had in terms of rest days, particularly with Tier Two against Tier One games. These contribute to us getting those winning margins down as much as we can.”
World Rugby acknowledged that it is monitoring events at Premier Rugby as it seeks outside investment.
“It is a normal objective to seek funding to accelerate growth but you have got to weigh up any extra money with the cost of control,” said Gosper. “We have had approaches ourselves but it is one of the reasons we have never ventured into it because, by definition, as a governing body we are control freaks. At what price would you relinquish control? And I guess they are working their way through that.”