What would happen if the FIFA World Cup qualification process was applied to Rugby? This is a question that I have pondered on many occasions.
I see football as a genuine threat to the future of rugby in New Zealand and abroad. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m no football fanatic, but let’s be honest, it dominates most countries as the preferred sport. It dominates regarding player numbers and popularity. So perhaps rugby can learn a few things from the way that the football world operates.
This is the first article of three where I look at a possible alternative to the Rugby World Cup qualification process. In this article, I want to explain the World Cup qualification process and then see how it could work if implemented by World Rugby.
Deciding on the 32 Teams
To decide the 32 teams involved in the Football World Cup, all 200 plus football nations are divided into six confederations. North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa and Oceania are these confederations. Interestingly Australia is a part of the Asian confederation and not Oceania, and there are also a few teams in South America included in the North American confederation. However, the confederations are fairly geographically straight-forward.
There have been recent discussions to expand the World Cup to 40 teams, and from 2026 it’s expected that there will be an expansion possibly to 48 teams (8 pools of 6).
Not all is equal
It’s worth noting that each confederation is not equal.
Oceania, for example, is only granted half a place in the World Cup. This ultimately means that for the winner of this confederation to advance to the World Cup they need to beat a team from another confederation. Much like a repechage system. Hence, many may remember the recent hype over the New Zealand team’s qualifying games against Peru. A home and away, aggregate goals scored based win would have seen NZ advance to the World Cup as the 32nd and final team. Instead, Peru took this position.
In contrast, the European confederation has a qualifying system of 9 pools of 6 teams, of which 13 plus Russia qualify (tournament host Russia qualifies automatically).
Each confederation has the freedom to decide whether to use a pool based system or a series of single home and away qualifying games (or a single neutral territory game). As it currently stands Europe is allocated 13 spaces, Oceania 0.5, Asia 4.5, Africa 5, North America 3.5, and South America 4.5. This is 31 and with the host automatically qualifying, gives 32 teams at the World Cup Finals.
Half point confederations
The four confederations with a .5 qualify a lower qualifying team (except with Oceania, where the winner gains this right) through inter-confederation playoffs. Hence the reference to NZ (Oceania) vs Peru (South America).
Deciding who plays who in this process is part of the World Cup preliminary draw. At this time they also draw out the teams for the pools in some of the confederations’ qualifying processes.
So that’s a brief intro and explanation of the WC place allocation and confederation systems.
Every team is required to qualify for the World Cup (except the host nation), and rankings seemingly play little part in the make-up of the final qualifying pools.
This said, in several confederations, internal confederation rankings determine how many rounds a team needs to be involved in.
For example, in the Asian confederation, the first round of qualifying involves the 12 teams ranked from 35 to 46 in the confederation. The six winners advance to the second round of qualifying which also includes the top 34 to create a top 40 or 8 groups of 5.
The 8 group winners and the four best runners-up then create a two pool six team 3rd round of qualifying. After which the two best in each pool gain direct entry to the World Cup and the two 3rd placers play off against each other for the right to enter the inter-confederation play-off match. Phew!
North American confederation
Deciding North America’s 3.5 places is a similar 5 round qualifying process. This is is likely to be changed. However, it culminates in a top 10 team home and away playoff system. The top 3 gain places in the World Cup finals and the 4th enters the inter-confederation play-off.
In Europe, the qualifying pools are drawn randomly into nine pools. The nine pool winners gain entry to the World Cup, and the top 8 runners-up from the nine pools (based on points) go into a home and away playoff. The winners of these playoffs gain the final 4 (of 13) places at the World Cup.
South American confederation
The South American system is much more straight-forward, it’s just a ten team home and away tournament. The top 4 gain places and the 5th goes into the inter-confederation play-off.
In Africa, there are five pools of 4, with each pool winner (after home and away games) gaining entry to the World Cup. This only happens after two rounds to eliminate over 30 weaker teams.
So as you can see the process is like several mini World Cups. This all takes place in the years between World Cups and begins in the year following the previous World Cup. In some cases, the process is rather complex, mainly due to a large number of teams involved. This shouldn’t be a major factor in rugby.
So how could this apply to Rugby?
It should be pretty clear already that contrary to football, rugby isn’t truly global. Football has over 200 nations involved in qualifying. On the other hand, World Rugby have rankings for 103 participating countries.
The finals of the 8 World Cups so far have only ever involved five different nations; New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, England and France. The latter attending three finals and never winning. Meaning only four teams have ever won the Webb Ellis Trophy.
In contrast, there have been 20 Football World Cups since 1930. Nine different winners and 12 different teams have competed in the final. This is roughly double the amount in comparison to rugby. This could be explained by the fact there are roughly twice as many countries playing football globally. It could also be explained by the broader timeline and a host of other metrics as well. But I’ll let you consider it anyway.
Applying confederations to rugby
So for interest’s sake, regardless of the depth of quality in international rugby, let’s figure out a six confederation qualifying process for a 32 team rugby World cup.
Of the 103 ranked rugby nations, Europe has the far greatest number of teams with 40 countries, Africa has 17 teams, Asia 15 (including Australia), Oceania 11 and North America and South America both have ten teams.
Currently, FIFA allocates 13 WC places to Europe out of 55 starting nations, but only five places for Africa which has 54 teams. Asia’s 46 teams get whittled down to 4.5 places. North America gets 3.5 out of 35 teams. South America gets 4.5 places for its ten starting nations and Oceania receives 0.5 World Cup places.
This shows that the number of World Cup places FIFA allocates to each confederation is not entirely weighted by the number of nations playing in each confederation. But it is aligned closely with the competitiveness of each confederation.
For this exercise, I’ll determine a number, weighted somewhere in between the number of participating rugby countries in each federation and their rankings.
I will allocate the most places to Europe. This allocation is based on the fact that it has the most substantial number of teams. Also, 20 of the top 40 teams in the world are European. The current rankings show 15 of the top 32 rugby teams are from Europe. Two are from North America. Four are from South America. Four are from Asia (incl. Australia). Three from Africa, and four are from Oceania.
Let’s use this system to determine the allotment of Rugby World Cup spaces:
- Europe = 15.5 teams
- North America = 2 teams
- South America = 3.5 teams
- Asia = 2.5 + 1 (host Japan automatic entry)
- Africa = 3.5 teams
- Oceania = 4 teams
- Total = 32
Author: Steven Cartwright
I grew up in Taranaki and was introduced to rugby at 8 years old, and have been playing ever since. I played for the Inglewood club then went to boarding school at FDMC in New Plymouth. After graduating from Canterbury University I moved with my fiancee to south Brazil where I’ve been playing/coaching rugby and freelancing.