The Rugby World Cup features twenty teams in a quadrennial battle for global supremacy, the ninth instalment scheduled for Japan next year, but don’t expect too many surprises from an event which almost invariably goes according to the script.

Firstly, more or less the same teams are showing up again and again. The only change to the 2015 lineup was Uruguay for Russia, in 2011 it was Russia for Portugal, and in 2007 Portugal for Uruguay. That’s it. One new team per tournament, and not a solitary debutante in 2015.

The top 12 teams don’t even have to qualify. This has been a steadily decreasing process since the turn of the century, in fact. It reached its apogee in the late nineties when all but the previous tournament’s top three teams were required to play qualifying matches. But after finishing fourth in 1999, perennial giants New Zealand baulked at the indignation, and it’s been all downhill from there.

The World Cup proper is mind-numbingly predictable

At least nine times out of ten you know who is going to win. In 2003 there was only one upset in 48 games, for instance (Australia beating New Zealand in the semi-finals). It’s true that the last World Cup witnessed perhaps the biggest surprise in international rugby history when Japan stunned South Africa. However, this was one of just a handful of surprises at the event – and certainly the only major one.

Goromaru scores against South Africa. Who would ever have predicted that result?
Photo by AFLO

The elite teams will dominate the knock-out stages as usual. New Zealand has not only won the World Cup three times (including the last two), it has reached seven semi-finals from eight tournaments. South Africa and Australia, both two-time champions, generally feature at the business end of the competition as well.

Five-team groups

These do not allow for equal scheduling and have drawn complaints from non-elite teams. These teams feel they are being disadvantaged by shorter breaks between fixtures, which is true. They also make for protracted group stages, and perhaps one too many games for the weaker teams, who tend to be well out of it by the fourth.

An expanded, 24-team format, based on the 1986 – 1994 FIFA World Cups, would go some way toward remedying these problems. Aside from creating four more qualifying berths, the four-team pools would allow for equal scheduling and shift the emphasis squarely onto the more competitive and enthralling knock-out rounds. These, in turn, would become a more random affair with double the number of scenarios possible.

A 24-team tournament would also involve four more fixtures than the current 48-game model, but with its condensed group stages and increased fixtures per round, it could be completed in a slightly short time-frame.

Development of rugby

Of course, any such expansion should come with a commitment to developing more of the fringe third tier nations, who have practically no contact with the elite teams in between World Cups. The World’s top 10 nations play in two major annual championships – Europe’s Six Nations and the Southern Hemisphere’s Rugby Championship. These are both closed-shop. There is no promotion-relegation. The only contact they have with the remaining teams between World Cups is the occasional friendly.

Not one of them has ever visited Georgia, for instance; an up-and-coming rugby nation currently ranked 12th in the world. Fiji is ranked even higher than that, 10th, but rarely hosts internationals against the elite teams. This, of course, places so-called second and third tier teams at a major disadvantage when the World Cup does come around.

Rugby World Cup needs to expand
I bet these Georgian fans would love to be involved in the 6N or even a promotion/relegation match.
Photo Martin Seras Lima

Six Nations teams touring the Southern Hemisphere could perhaps make a regular habit of playing stop-off Tests. These Tests could be against the likes of Uruguay, Brazil and Chile en route to Argentina. Namibia, Zimbabwe and Kenya en route to South Africa. And the Pacific Islands either en route to New Zealand and Australia or in those countries themselves. Similarly, SANZAAR teams could play stop-off Tests against ENC first division teams during the Autumn tours.

Repeating host nations

France has been somewhat controversially named the host of the tenth Rugby World Cup in 2023. This, ahead of South Africa who had received the international governing body’s endorsement. France were hosts as recently as 2007 and had been involved as co-host twice before that. Wales have played a part in staging four tournaments (half of them so far). England and Scotland three each.

South Africa hosted a magnificent World Cup back in 1995, Nelson Mandela handing over the trophy in what has gone down as one of sports iconic moments (and the basis for a Clint Eastwood movie). But four times in succession the African nation has bid to stage it again to no avail.

rugby politics
The moment that changed South African rugby forever.
Photo: Nagarjun Kandukuru, via Flickr

At the very least there ought to be a 20-year stand-down for any nation which has hosted the tournament. Be that alone or as a joint venture.

The World Cup is the game’s showpiece event, but its potential for promoting the sport internationally is restricted. Certainly, as long as one small corner of the globe continues to stage every second edition – as Britain and France have since its inception.

Note: There are three excellent articles expanding on this idea; here, here, and here. Do not miss them as they offer a lot of detail into how things could change.


Author: Quentin Poulsen

I am a former New Zealand sports writer and founder of the Wellington American football competition, which ran from the 1990s until the 2010s. I traveled to Spain to teach at the turn of the century, and have been in Turkey since 2005. During the past several years I have taken a keen interest in third tier rugby, watching countless games via live streaming.


  1. It will also give tire 2 sides a chance to play in big knockout games if you are including round of 16 games. World rugby have made a plan to add more tire 1 v tire 2 matches in the future which is badly needed. However I don’t believe we should jump into a 24 team world cup just yet but maybe in 10 or 15 years time. The last thing we want is 100 point thrashings between the likes of New Zealand and Germany. The 2028 world cup is when we should expand the tournament.

    • Good points, totally predictable one sided contests do nobody any good. We should only expand when we are confident that the extra teams are up to it. Hopefully the extra exposure for the tier three teams will accelerate the process.

    • Yes, no more just making up the numbers for the 2nd tier teams. The round of 16 (Octavos) will become a very realistic goal for the second tier sides. The weakest teams will also play one less game than now, with four team groups, meaning a likely reduction in mismatches.

    • Well in 1995 New Zealand beat Namibia 147-0 so even without the extra tiers we still have the possibility of a 100 point thrashing. I get your point and agree with it but then maybe with your point we should only allow the top 11 or so teams in the world compete and everyone else has to just watch? We definitely need to allow time to get the 1st -3rd tier teams up to a certain level before it is expanded.

      • NZ defeated Japan 145-17 in 95. Namibia weren’t there. Australia beat Japan 142-0 in 03. No other match in the history of the World Cup has been won by 100 points or more. Soccer has also had its blowouts, such as Hungary hammering El Salvador 10-1 in 82.

  2. Thanks Quentin. A very good article.
    I understand that there are other issues as well – may be next time. n
    Meanwhile, I would like to touch on issue. 6 groups, 4 teams each. All first and second teams qualify + 4 more best third teams (like it was at FIFA WORLD CUP 1986 or 1990. In other words 16 teams qualify. It is expected that 8-9 best teams will advance to 1/8s. However there will be furious battle for the next 7 places. T2/T3 teams like Georgia, Romania, USA, Japan even Spain, Portugal, Uruguay, Namibia, etc will get a chance to qualify from the group. Nowadays they are just supernumeraries, trying to get 3rd place in the group. A chance for qualification will inspire many countries, therefore level of rugby throughout the world will significantly grow .

    • Good comments, Gogig. Precisely my thoughts. You know, it was the 24 teams format that saw African teams first start to come through at the FIFA World Cup. Prior to that they’d never got past the group stages, but in 86 Morocco won their group, 4 years later Cameroon reached the quarters, and in 94 Nigeria blasted into the final 16 in their debut performance.

      Meanwhile, another thought I’ve had is that Fiji really ought to be on the World Rugby core committee with direct representation. I mean, they have more players than Georgia and Romania combined, and those two nations were recently added. They’d also been a lot more successful. So what exactly is the criteria here? Hate to point it out, but there is only 1 member of the core committee with a non-white majority population – and that is South Africa.

  3. Refusal of tier1 to open up is whats causing the stagnation in the global rugby. One can argue that tier 1 at least in europe are deliberately suffocation tier 2 by separating themselves at all levels now including at junior level. That is why there are no new teams appearing. Rugby if not shrinking certainly not growing globally. Countries that progress soon realize that there is no where to progress to. Increasing WC to 24 wont change this trend. Once in a 4 year tournament where you are guaranteed to loose early is not a sufficient motivation. Thats said thought I too think 24 is a better, more fun format, providing there is 1/8 round.

  4. Yes, agree with you all the way, PP. Simply expanding the World Cup would be putting the cart before the horse, which is why there needs to be that commitment toward developing more of the fringe teams, as stated in the article – along with a few ideas on how that might be achieved. The 6 Nations has really stifled the game in Europe, without a doubt, admitting a grand total of 2 new teams in the past century – and only if those teams demonstrated the ability to beat the incumbents on a regular basis. In fact, the Home Unions didn’t even want a World Cup, remember, and now they & neighbors France are demanding they host every second edition, as though it were their divine right! New Zealand and South Africa have also neglected their neighbors, and in the former’s case they are very worthy neighbors as well – all of whom have beaten the Wallabies at least once. So when you see the All Blacks and Springboks parading with the silverware, that needs bearing in mind. These are also the nations which have stifled the game’s international development.

  5. Good text. I Just personally don’t like of the Idea of best 3rd places qualifying. Maybe something like 1982 FIFA World Cup would be better. 6 pools of 4 with 2 qualifying, then 4 pools of 3 with one qualifying, semifinais and finals. Also a possibility would be the 6 3rd placed teams playing an “bowl” tournament for the 13th place with 2 pools of 3 and finals. Currently 12 teams get automatic qualification for the next RWC. My proposal is that with 24 teams the 13th can also get a automatic spot. That would provide an attainable goal for tier 2 (and possible 3) nations and more games with teams of their level.

    • Thanks, Rafael. Stephen Cartwright has written about that in the Opinion section: I’d personally be happy just to see them get back to where they were at the end of last century. The qualifying system for 99 was entirely independent of regional competitions and saw 5 Nations teams playing on the continent and (subsequent winners) Australia engaged in a tournament with the Pacific Islanders. That was the apogee for RWC qualifying.


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