Sport Writer George Wellbelove discusses the biggest changes in the history of Rugby union
World Rugby have announced the largest changes to the structure of international rugby including an expansion of the teams that compete in the World Cup from 2027 and an entirely new competition called the Nations Championship to be played from 2026.
Announced by World Rugby on 24 October, these changes have been branded as the ‘most significant development in the sport since the game went professional’ by World Rugby chairman, Sir Bill Beaumont. In terms of logistics, the teams that take part in the Six Nations and Rugby Championship – England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, France, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and Argentina – along with the additions of Fiji and Japan, will form the Nations Championship top tier.
This competition is to be played instead of the current July summer internationals and November autumn internationals. A second tier will also be created from the teams ranked 13-24 in the world rankings, which will also involve promotion and relegation, meaning smaller teams such as Spain could go up against the superpowers of the sport in New Zealand or South Africa.
The new format allows for security for teams to play international games, benefiting smaller nations who would not usually have much television coverage or receive much online attention. In addition to this, a new Pacific Nations Cup has been introduced to involve Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, USA, Japan and Canada to fully cement a strong number of international games. This competition contains two pools of three in which the first placed teams in each of the pools play each other in a grand final, followed by a bronze playoff and a 5/6th playoff.
The rebrand of the Pacific Nations Cup is a welcome addition for USA in particular as they are hosting the 2031 Rugby World Cup. USA did not qualify for France 2023 so they will be looking to play as many games as possible in order to provide a spectacle on their home soil.
However, the changes were almost scrapped due to Argentina, Rugby Europe, Romania and South America voting against the motion. The level of opposition to such influential changes in international rugby is telling of a potentially troubling future. The issue of promotion and relegation was highlighted as it can be seen only a few teams would reach that point, therefore inadvertently creating a system of one team going down before being promoted straight back up the next year.
Financially, this could cause huge issues and currently, the governing bodies behind teams are not financially stable. Perhaps best shown by the amount of professional teams in England that have folded over the last twelve months.
The change to future Rugby World Cups is the four additional teams, making up six pools of four. The top two teams from each pool would advance to a new round of sixteen, along with the four best ranked third placed teams. Whilst this does create an extra game in an already tight international schedule, this ensures that most top teams can progress into the knockout rounds. Paired with the draw for the Rugby World Cup now taking place twelve months before the start date of the tournament, this should create a less lopsided competition to avoid a situation like this year’s World Cup.
Ultimately, the changes to international rugby should be welcomed with open arms. The new competitions allow for fixture security and increased opportunities for coverage, leading to larger audiences across the world. Whilst the problems with this system are too early to tell, the opposition to these changes is an issue and one that should be noted for the next few years. It appears that the future of international rugby has been secured and rugby spectators can enjoy more matches from 2026.
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