World Rugby have announced the qualification process for the 2021 Women’s Rugby World Cup
The top seven placed teams from WRWC 2017 (New Zealand, England, United States, France, Canada, Australia and Wales) have already secured automatic qualification for the ninth Women’s Rugby World Cup 2021, to be played in New Zealand, the first time it will take place in the Southern Hemisphere
The standout positive feature of the announcement is the creation of two completely new regional test tournaments – in Africa this year and South America next. This is a massive step forward for women’s rugby in these regions. As a result the final tournament in 2021 will also probably be more of a genuinely world event than ever before.
However, there are inevitably some losers too, and again - hard on the heels of their being sidelined for Olympic qualification - North America and the Caribbean are again left on the shelf. With USA and Canada already qualified, the rest of the region misses out completely with no qualification route – which is a little hard on a region that for many years had a successful test championship (indeed one of the oldest women’s test championships) until the rise of the sevens effectively killed it off.
You are forced to wonder why a place in the new South American championship could not have been offered to a region which, with its successful 10s tournament, arguably has a firmer base for 15s than South America.
There is also an element of public relations slight-of-hand with the European qualification process. The headline here is that for the first time the Six Nations is not being directly used to decide any qualifiers, but nonetheless the unqualified three teams from the Six Nations (including Scotland who did not qualify for the last two World Cups) get a bye straight into the qualifier, whereas the rest of Europe (most notaly Spain who have qualified for the last two World Cups) will have to first win the 2020 European Championship. In practice it is unlikely that Spain would not win that championship, but truth be told the Six Nations is still being favoured here.
But perhaps the main matter of note for Europe is that at least two of these teams will be staying at home in 2021. At best only five European teams will be at the World Cup - fewer than ever before.
The qualification process
To summarise the four regional tournament that will fill four of the fives places in New Zealand, plus a “repecharge” tournament for the fifth place:
Oceania: The winner of what World Rugby describes as an “expanded” 2019 Oceania Women’s Rugby Championship
Europe: The winner of a special European qualification tournament to be held in September 2020. This will be made up of Ireland, Italy, Scotland and the winner of the 2020 Rugby Europe championship
Asia: The winner of the Asia Rugby Championship in 2020
Africa: The winner of the new African Championship, to be held in August 2019.
The fifth place will be filled from a four-team “repecharge” tournament, that will take place in 2020 at a venue to be announced.
Three of the places in this tournament will be offered to the runners-up from Europe, Asia and Oceania
The fourth place will be decided by the winner of play-of between the new South American champions (a tournament due be held in 2020) and the African runners-up.
North America and the Caribbean are not included in the process (though the USA and Canada have already qualified).
Explaining the new structure World Rugby Chairman Sir Bill Beaumont said: “We are committed to accelerating the development of the women’s game at international level. Last year we announced significant remodelling of the Women’s Rugby World Cup format to ensure that the competition continues to be as competitive as possible, while also continuing to engage fans worldwide.
“The introduction of a new qualification pathway and Repechage tournament for the first time in the tournament’s history, is another significant and exciting step forward, that will offer more unions an opportunity to qualify for the World Cup in 2021.”
Furthering World Rugby’s commitment to prioritising player welfare by increasing tournament squad sizes from 28 to 30 players.
The schedule of regional qualification tournaments and the Women’s Rugby World Cup Repechage will be announced later this year.