This is the third and final article on my view of how the FIFA World Cup qualification process could be adopted by rugby.

To get the complete picture of my thought process take a look at Part 1 and Part 2.

The inter-confederation championship

Based on the results from Part 2, Ukraine (37), Brazil (28), Korea (31) and Uganda (35) would play each other. The matches would be either home and away or a single neutral territory game. A slight change from football is that you could even have a neutral territory style tournament.

The top 2 teams or the two winning teams (on aggregate) would advance to the World Cup. In this case, based on rankings, Brazil and Korea would most likely qualify for a place.

The draw

In rugby, the World Cup draw corresponds closely to world rankings. A team’s previous World Cup result also dictates whether they need to qualify. Currently, the rule is that the top 3 from each previous World Cup pool and the next host nation are exempt from qualifying.

The top 4 ranking teams are each randomly selected for a pool; the next four are drawn randomly into one of these pools, then the next 4. That covers the 12 that have automatically qualified. The final eight qualifying places are also placed into pools; i.e. Americas 1, Oceania 1, repechage etc…

The FIFA draw

In FIFA, the 32 qualified teams are ordered based on their world rankings at a particular time (Oct 2017 – 1 year before WC). The top 7 teams plus the host nation occupy the first place in each of the eight pools, drawn randomly. The next eight are then drawn randomly into 1 of these pools, then the next group of 8 and then the final 8.

Interestingly, nine teams ranked outside the top 32 qualified for next year’s FIFA World Cup. Italy (sitting in 9th) most notably missed qualification, showing how competitive the football world is.

In the way I have assessed the qualifying stages for the Rugby World Cup I have relied pretty heavily on current world rankings so in the end the top 32 teams actually qualified. However, it’s not completely outside the realms of possibility that teams outside the top 32 in rugby might somehow sneak into contention for the World Cup. And on the flip side, a team inside the top 32 could miss the cut, just like in football.

So, here is an alphabetically randomised 8 Pool Rugby World Cup draw. This, after being ordered by world ranking and into bands.

During the FIFA World Cup, after each team has played the other three teams in its pool, the top 2 teams advance to the top 16. The knockout stages of the finals are outlined below.

Finals

Top 16

The top 16 is an additional stage that the FIFA World Cup has that the Rugby World Cup does not.

In this round, the winner of Pool A plays the runner-up of Pool B. The winner of Pool C plays the runner-up of Pool D. Similarly, the runner-up of Pool A plays the winner of Pool B and the runner-up in Pool C plays the winner of Pool D. The format continues in this fashion for Pools E through H.

It is in this round where it is completely possible for a so-called minnow nation to somehow force its way into a game against a top 8 team.

For example:

  • 1. Australia vs Samoa
  • 2. Ireland vs Italy
  • 3. NZ vs France
  • 4. South Africa vs Argentina
  • 5. England vs Tonga
  • 6. Japan vs Romania
  • 7. Scotland vs Georgia
  • 8. Wales vs Fiji
Quarterfinals

The winner of Game 1 plays the winner of Game 2, the winner of Game 3 plays the winner of Game 4 and so on.

Semifinals

The winner of QF1 plays the QF2 winner, and QF3 plays QF4. This is the same as it currently stands.

Then the two sides of the draw come together for the first time, and the two winners face off in the final. There’s also a bronze place final.

Keep the party going

It could also be possible to use a Sevens style system where the pool and quarterfinal losers get to play-off for Plate, Bowl and Shield prizes. This would undoubtedly help in keeping teams and supporters interested and would aid in global rugby development, however, the cost of this would certainly prevent it from happening.

Conclusion

Overall, the FIFA style qualifying system allows more teams into the World cup, it encourages confederation rivalry and development, and it gives meaning to games that might otherwise only count towards a confusing world ranking and World Cup qualification system.

FIFA doesn’t seem to care about score blow-outs, they want to expose teams to the nature of competitive football. This has the obvious benefit of showing teams where they stand in the world and how they can improve. Although, it’s also obvious that FIFA doesn’t have a problem drumming up global interest in football, so the risk that spectators would turn away from the game due to a drubbing is almost nil.

Also, in the same way that FIFA doesn’t look to protect weaker teams, it also doesn’t protect stronger teams from qualification elimination.

Unfeasable?

I’ll admit that an increase from 20 to 32 teams in the Rugby World Cup would probably be unfeasible from a monetary and perhaps organisational/logistical point of view at the moment. In fairness, this wasn’t the point of this articles anyway. However, if World Rugby is serious about global development, then it makes sense to get the global rugby community more involved. Confederations could do this. It would give some minnow nations a chance to play against the best in the world, on at least a four-yearly basis, and in qualifying on a semi-regular basis.

It’s obvious how much Georgia gained from their game against the All Blacks at the last World Cup. Sure there’s a decent chance of score blow-outs, but more powerful nations will undoubtedly use these games to develop depth anyway.

If we want to be competitive with the enormous spectacle that is the FIFA juggernaut, why not imitate it just a little bit?

The previous Rugby World Cup demonstrated that teams ranked outside the top 10 in the world are developing rapidly and becoming more competitive. Surely it’s time to expand the Rugby World Cup and implement a FIFA-inspired confederation system to engage the rugby community, draw in more spectators and interest to the game by developing rugby nations with games that have a clear and understood meaning and in which teams can more accurately gauge their progress?

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.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Really well argued series, Steven, thanks!

    The same process could be used if the number of places at the finals were increased to 24 or 25 teams. The numbers qualifying from each of the confederations would be lower and there would need to be fewer pools (either 6 of 4 or 5 of 5) with the teams with the best 3rd or 4th placed teams qualifying to the last 16 round. I believe this would make every pool game important for the ‘weaker’ nations and improve the competition.

    In the qualifying stages I would suggest that Alphabetical selection for the pools not be used. Not because it is an unfair method of deciding who is in which pool but simply because the pools at each world cup would remain the same each time. They would only change when teams joined or left a confederation, splitting the teams based on their world ranking or a random selection for each pool would ensure variety every 4 years. This would prevent teams complaining that they always faced the All Blacks in the Oceania confederation or the Springboks in the African confederation.

    Once again, a great series of articles, Steven, and a good blueprint for developing the global game. We need to stop protecting the top tier nations at the World Cup and end automatic qualification. For me the only teams who should automatically qualify for the pool stages are the Host Nation and possibly the current holder of the Webb Ellis Cup.

  2. Cheers Paul! I agree, an expanded world cup to 24 or 25 would be a step in the right direction and the alphabetically ordered pools would definitely be a no go, as you said. I only used this system to illustrate the different qualifying pools rather than put together a questionable randomized selection. A truly random pool draw would be very interesting but would leave many countries nervous about which teams they are grouped with, as in the Fifa style most WC places are decided within the confederations and there aren’t many second chances.

  3. Hello Steven,
    Read all your 3 part article
    First i’d like to underline that football doesn’t have tournaments like the 6N/5N or the rugby Championship/Trinations who take place on a yearly basis
    Also these tournaments, beside the historical value, show very high level matches if you only look at the rankings, and this is something which needs to be addressed with as tier-2 teams ask rightly for more matches against tier-1 teams
    Moreover, the rugby world cup lasts like two weeks more than a football one, adding more teams and more stages will definetely mean a longer world cup, which could last two months
    I Think that the only working parameter is the ranking position, as it does not take account of geographical issue

    • Hey superignazzio, cheers for reading my articles. I agree, football doesn’t have yearly tournaments as we do in rugby, most of their international games are either friendlies or geared towards their qualifying systems. So perhaps Fifa could also learn something from rugby 😉
      Providing more top level games for developing nations is one of the reasons I decided to look at this format, the Fifa system of qualifying gives every nation the opportunity to play against better teams, even if it’s only every 3-4 years in qualifying or at the WC. I believe that the IRB has now decided to give deserving developing nations more exposure to top level rugby, but this may take several years to fully implement. So that’s a step in the right direction.
      In terms of the length of the WC, if the format is an 8 pool of 4 teams system, then the pool stage would be finished sooner than it currently is, as each team only plays 3 pool games, as opposed to the 4 they currently play. The only extra stage is the top 16. But you’re right, a 32 team WC would be a very full schedule which would require more venues to accommodate the extra games, it would certainly be a logistical challenge, but I don’t think it would take any extra time, and even if it did, there are no November tests, so it could easily run 1 or 2 weeks extra before it begins to affect the European club games.

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