World Cup qualification needs a rethink

Today Japan qualified for the World Cup after winning the Asian Championship. Last weekend Australia lost to New Zealand, but could in theory lose every other test match in 2024 and still qualify for the World Cup. John Birch looks at why he thinks the qualification process needs a substantial rethink.

Published by John Birch, May 27, 2024

8 minute read

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World Cup qualification needs a rethink

Australia lost 67-19 to New Zealand last weekend, the third of three defeats in this year’s Pacific Fours. Despite this they will still play in WXV2 this autumn, which guarantees them a World Cup spot.

Japan today completed their second win in the Asian Championship to take the title, and as a result they too will play in WXV2, and will play in the World Cup.

So one team will play in the World Cup next year as a reward for winning a competition, whereas another team will qualify despite losing every game in a competition.

How could this be?

As we have said several times on this site, despite its outward complexity all teams WXV1 and WXV2 in 2024 will inevitably qualify for the World Cup. Any other outcome was mathematically impossible from the moment that the qualification process was announced.

[Quick summary: 15 out of the 16 teams that will play in the World Cup will also play in WXV (the exception being South America’s representative). WXV1 and WXV2 provide 12 of those teams, so the other three more will come from WXV3 – the Oceania champions, plus the best placed two other teams.]

The bottom team in PAC4 last year – USA - was guaranteed a spot in first WXV2 and, as they avoided relegation, they ensured that the winners of the PAC4 wooden spoon this year would also play WXV2, and thus in the World Cup.

What is more, Ireland, by winning WXV3 last year, ensured that the top five from the 2024 Six Nations teams would also play in WXV1 or WXV2 and also therefore qualify.

Do a little maths as you will find that nine of the sixteen teams at the World Cup will come from just two competitions - the Six Nations and the Pacific Fours - competitions that feature only 10 teams in total, and moreover competitions that are “closed” – that is to say competitions with no chance of promotion from outside or the risk of relegation from inside.

Which is why losing every game (or almost every game) is no  barrier to qualification.

What is more the tenth team – the team that ended bottom of the Six Nations (Wales) – have two more shots at qualifying. First, they will qualify if they win the WXV2 playoff game against Spain (where Wales have been given the helpful hand of home advantage) and if they fail there, they can qualify through WXV3.

These generous provisions do not apply to the rest of the world, including Japan, who have to compete for the remaining six places.

And how they are divided up is also a little strange:

There are so many things in this table that stand out.

It is noticeable that North American teams who do no play in PAC4 cannot dream of a World Cup spot, but that is perhaps understandable as RAN have not yet full revived their XVs championship (although if they had been offered a World Cup spot – like South America – you cannot help thinking that maybe that would have provided them with an incentive to work harder and faster on their XVs project).

However, the fact that largest confederation – Europe – does not get an automatic World Cup spot appears is less easy to explain. Yes, the Six Nations are European but – as mentioned above – they play in (and qualify through) a totally separate private, closed, tournament, so they fact that they happen to be European is irrelevant. So far as the World Cup is concerned, they are European in name alone and might as well play on their own totally separate continent.

What is more Europe was also the only confederation to give its second-tier teams a chance to compete – a chance to dream. The 2023 European Trophy offered a route into the 2024 European Championship, and through that a chance to play for a place in WXV3.

No other confederation has done this. African and Asian “Division 2” tournaments did not take place in 2023, closing off any World Cup (or WXV) dreams for players from Thailand to Zimbabwe.

Meanwhile the combined total of six non-PAC4 Oceania and South American teams get two automatic places.

It also has to be said that all of this is radically different to the qualification process for the men’s world cup, where teams have to qualify by performances on the field, either via through results in the previous tournament or through regional qualifiers.

Again, why is this? Why all complexity of World Rugby qualification charts? Why the recent PR hoopla about USA qualifying for the World Cup by ending third in the PAC4s, when they’d qualified already?

Well, we can only speculate.

Perhaps World Rugby are not aware about how the qualification process works in practice? This is possible, but unlikely given that Scrumqueens for one has been pointing out how it would work in practice from pretty much the day it was announced, and every rugby journalist you speak to is perfectly aware.

The alternative is that World Rugby are aware, in which case this is a PR exercise. First to help promote the World Cup by creating a number of “artificial jeopardies” – “must win” games that aren’t really must win games. This is annoying because World Rugby are asking rugby reporters to mislead their readers (Scrumqueens has been refusing to follow this line), but understandable.

But also, in previous World Cups there have been complaints about World Rugby using private, closed, tournaments like the Six Nations as a route to qualification. And PAC4 or Six Nations gets little or no mention in any 2025 World Cup qualification publicity from World Rugby. It outwardly looks far more democratic and acceptable.

And that is, of course, because it uses WXV - and it is WXV that reserves almost all of its top places for Six Nations and PAC4 teams.

Why does this matter? The process results in the best teams in the world playing in the tournament, what difference does it make.

To which I reply, look at the men’s World Cup. Why do teams like St Lucia, Moldova or Botswana take part when they stand zero chance of qualifying?

Because it gives players a chance to dream. A chance to play in the same competition as the top players.

And that is important, best illustrated in women’s rugby when the dream was taken away. When the 2017 World Cup offered their one African place to South Africa without any qualifiers it almost killed international XVs on the continent. Why fund a XVs programme when it leads no-where, said countries such as Kenya and Uganda, whose programmes were all but wound up, and only began to be revived when a qualification process was revived for 2025.

The men’s world cup is accessible to players from any country in the world, without any overt favouritism to any nation, regardless of any other competition they may play in. For 2029 that should be the same for the women’s competition.