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Every full member of World Rugby can aspire to compete at a Rugby World Cup through the regional qualification process, and the journey to Japan began back on 5 March when St Vincent and the Grenadines hosted Jamaica.
After that curtain-raiser in the Caribbean, Rugby World Cup 2019 qualifiers also took place throughout 2016 in Africa, Asia, Oceania, South America and Europe, as teams from around the globe started their bids to join the 12 nations who had already booked their place in Japan thanks to a top-three pool finish at last year’s record-breaking tournament.
Rugby Americas North
With the Webb Ellis Cup proudly on display pitch-side and RWC 2015 final referee Nigel Owens officiating in the middle, a record crowd of 1,000 came to the Arnos Vale Sports Complex in Kingstown to watch St Vincent and the Grenadines take on Jamaica in the opening RWC 2019 qualifier.
Jamaica proved too strong in every department and an eight-try, 48-0 victory put the Reggae Crocs into the southern section of the Rugby Americas North (RAN) Championship alongside Barbados, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago, while the northern section consisted of Mexico, Cayman Islands, Bahamas and Bermuda.
Guyana and reigning RAN champions Trinidad and Tobago won both of their games to set up a table-topping showdown in the Twin Island Republic, while it was the same story in the north where Mexico and the Cayman Islands played off for the right to contest the RAN Championship final.
Guyana edged a Port of Spain thriller 23-18, their Trinidadian hosts conceding a crucial score at the death while down to 13 men. Rapidly-improving Mexico produced a four-try blitz inside 18 first-half minutes to effectively settle their match with the Caymans by half-time. The Caymans stuck to their task and scored two late consolation tries but Las Serpientes held on to win 34-24.
Three months passed before Mexico and Guyana met in the final in Mexico City on 1 October. Leading 10-3 at half-time, Las Serpientes capitalised on Guyana’s ill-discipline and poor goal-kicking to pull away and win 32-3.
Mexico’s victory set up a straight shoot-out with three-time Sudamérica Rugby B Championship winners Colombia. Beaten but not bowed, Las Serpientes’ winning run, and hopes of appearing at RWC 2019, came to an end with a 29-11 defeat in Medellin.
Eliminated: Bahamas, Barbados, Bermuda, Cayman Islands, Guyana, Jamaica, Mexico, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago.
The 2016 Sudamérica Rugby B Championship doubled as a RWC 2019 qualification tournament, with the winners advancing to play newly-crowned RAN champions Mexico.
Host nation Peru and defending champions Colombia were joined by Venezuela and Ecuador in contesting the four-team tournament in Lima.
In the opening round, Gerson Ortiz bagged a hat-trick and there were try doubles for fellow back-row and captain Sebastián Mejia and winger Maicol Machado as 2014 and 2015 champions Colombia ran in 13 tries in a 75-5 win over an Ecuador side that lost four men to the sin-bin.
In the other game, fly-half Roberto Schaefer scored a try and kicked 13 points as Venezuela countered the loss of two men to the sin-bin to beat Peru, 33-8. Both sides comfortably won their midweek fixtures, Colombia overcoming Peru 41-14 while Venezuela beat Ecuador 52-10, to set up a final day title decider.
A surprise looked on the cards as the lower-ranked Venezuela took an early 10-3 lead but Colombia found another gear to score 32 unanswered points and claim a hat-trick of titles.
Against Mexico, Colombia made home advantage count, winning 29-11.
The next stop on Colombia’s RWC 2019 adventure was Asuncion, where Paraguay lay in wait in a play-off to decide which of the nations would take their place alongside Uruguay, Chile and Brazil in next year’s Sudamérica Rugby A Championship line-up. For the loser defeat meant the end of the line in their journey to Japan.
Los Tucanes put up a good account of themselves but it was the Yakares who prevailed 39-27.
Eliminated: Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela
Tashkent in Uzbekistan was the venue for the Asia Rugby Division 2 Championship, which doubled as the region’s first step on the road to RWC 2019.
With Japan to become the first Asia nation to host Rugby World Cup in 2019, Uzbekistan, Guam, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates had an early opportunity to stake a claim for a place in the global repechage.
And for the UAE that dream is still alive after convincing wins over Uzbekistan and then Thailand secured promotion to Division 1.
Having despatched hosts Uzbekistan 65-13 earlier in their opening game, UAE ran in 10 tries against Thailand a few days later to win 70-18 at the impressive Dustlik Stadium.
A perfect kicking display from centre Charlie Sargent yielded him 20 points, while winger Ryno Fourie, fly-half Matthew Hutchings and twinkle-toed full-back Imad Reyal each bagged a brace of tries apiece as the UAE pulled clear in the final quarter.
The highest ranked team in the Asia Rugby Championship in 2018 will face a play-off against the Oceania Cup winner for the right to play in the global repechage that will determine the 20th and final qualifier for RWC 2019.
Eliminated: Guam, Uzbekistan and Thailand
In Oceania, the World Rugby Pacific Nations Cup signalled the start of RWC 2019 qualification.
Results over the course of the 2016 and 2017 tournaments will decide which nations take their places in Japan as the Oceania 1 and Oceania 2 qualifiers.
At the halfway point Fiji are in pole position after coming from behind in both of their matches to beat Tonga and Samoa and lift the Pacific Nations Cup trophy in 2016.
Samoa’s 30-10 victory over Tonga puts them in second place in the overall standings, meaning that bottom-of-the-table Tonga need a strong performance in the 2017 edition to avoid having to take a longer route to Japan 2019.
The third-placed team will face a home and away play-off with the Rugby Europe Championship second-ranked team (excluding already qualified Georgia) with the winner qualifying as Play-off 1.
For the other nations in Oceania, the road will begin in 2017 with the Oceania Cup winner to face Asia's top team with a place in the global repechage the prize.
Back-to-back defeats to Madagascar (24-15) and Senegal (54-3) ensured Zambia of a bottom-placed finish in the Africa Cup Division 1B and relegation to the third tier of the regional competition. As such, their dream of appearing at Japan 2019 is now over.
The same is true of Mauritius and Nigeria who lost out to Morocco in the race for the Division 1C title. Morocco will now step up into Division 1B in 2017, the results of which will dictate the next stage of RWC 2019 qualification.
The Africa Cup Division 1B title was claimed by Senegal after a dramatic 15-14 win over Tunisia in Monastir, while the Division 1A trophy once again ended up in Namibian hands. Former RWC participants Zimbabwe finished last of the four participating nations, but earned a stay of execution with Division 1A to be expanded to six teams in 2017 with Senegal and Tunisia joining Namibia, Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe in the top flight.
Eliminated: Mauritius, Nigeria, Zambia
Enköping, about 80km from the Swedish capital Stockholm, provided the backdrop as the hosts faced the Czech Republic in the opening game of the five-team Rugby Europe Conference 1 North, which forms part of the European qualification process for RWC 2019.
The winners of the 2016-17 titles in Conference 2 North and South will face each other in a play-off, with the victorious side to meet the winner of a similiar battle between the two Conference 1 champions. The winner of the Rugby Europe Trophy awaits that winner in the next play-off in the regional process.
As things stand, the Czech Republic are favourites to progress from Conference 1 North after they followed up a 56-14 victory over Sweden in the curtain-raiser, in which captain and number eight Vojtěch Havel scored a hat-trick, with a hard-fought 15-6 win against Lithuania.
The Czechs top their pool with two wins from two, while, in Conference 1 South, Malta and Israel are the only unbeaten teams after the first two rounds of fixtures.
Hungary are the early pace-setters in Conference 2 North, while Slovenia and Austria head the standings in Conference 2 South after beginning their campaigns with victories over Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
In the second-tier Rugby Europe Trophy, the Netherlands have taken an early grip on the division with two straight wins, against Ukraine and Moldova. Ukraine are fighting for their lives at the foot of the table with three straight defeats.
RWC 2019 qualification takes a break now until the second weekend of February when the newly-named Rugby Europe Championship (formerly the European Nations Cup Division 1A) gets underway with all six sides in action.
Defending champions Georgia, who have already qualified for Japan 2019 thanks to their best-ever showing at RWC 2015, travel to Belgium, Germany entertain last year’s runners-up Romania and Spain face Russia.
All RWC 2019 qualifiers will be known by November 2018.