Over the next couple of years, teams from all corners of the globe will attempt to confirm their participation at Rugby World Cup 2023 through World Rugby’s regional qualification process.
Twelve teams – champions South Africa, England, New Zealand, Wales, Japan, France, Australia, Ireland, Scotland, Italy, Argentina and Fiji – have already qualified for the tournament having finished in the top three of their pools at RWC 2019.
But the remaining eight places will be determined by a series of qualifying tournaments in 2021 and 2022, including a four-team, final qualification tournament to decide the 20th and final qualifier.
Under the current system, Europe and the Americas are guaranteed two places apiece at Rugby World Cup 2023, with one place each for Oceania, Africa and Asia/Pacific.
Before the qualifiers though, came the draw itself. Each participating nation discovered their future opposition when the balls were drawn on 14 December at the iconic Palais Brongniart in Paris.
Americas 1 and Africa 1 were drawn in Pool A, Asia/Pacific 1 and Europe 2 in Pool B, Europe 1 and the final qualifier winner in Pool C, and Oceania 1 and Americas 2 in Pool D. But, which teams are in the shake-up to fill these slots?
Georgia, the ones to beat
With so many France-based players in their squad, the next Rugby World Cup will almost feel like a home tournament for Georgia – if they get there.
The Lelos have competed in every Rugby World Cup since their first involvement in 2003 and qualified directly for Japan 2019 through their third-place pool finish at RWC 2015.
However, a disappointing tournament last time around means they will now be vying with the likes of Russia, Romania, Spain and Portugal – all teams with past Rugby World Cup experience – for the right to go to France as Europe 1 or 2.
Combined results from across both the 2021 and 2022 editions of the Rugby Europe Championship will determine which of the teams fills these slots, while the third-best team will still get another opportunity through the final qualification tournament on a date yet to be decided.
Georgia have won 10 of the last 12 available titles in the Rugby Europe Championship, with Romania’s triumphs in 2010 and 2017 the only blot on their impressive record at that level, and will be desperate to make it to France, where many of their players are based, at the earliest opportunity.
While head coach Levan Maisashvili will not allow his players to under-estimate the task ahead, it would be a major shock if the Lelos did not go through as Europe 1. Even putting their pedigree at this level to one side, they will also go into the Rugby Europe Championship all the better for playing four consecutive matches against higher-ranked opponents in the Autumn Nations Cup.
As for the other guaranteed place, the situation is a lot less clear cut. Portugal are an improving force under the coaching of former France wing, Patrice Lagisquet, and recently had the benefit of a two-test series against Brazil.
Spain have made moves up the World Rugby Men’s Rankings after a string of impressive results, and Russia and Romania are rebuilding under the tutelage of Lyn Jones and Andy Robinson, respectively.
All change in the Americas
In the Americas, the qualification process recently changed to reflect the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Instead of allocating the Americas 1 place to the winner of the Americas Rugby Championship, qualification will now comprise two play-off matches.
First, the two 2021 champions from Rugby Americas North and Sudamérica Rugby will play home and away to determine Americas 1, the top spot in the region. The losing side will enter the Americas 2 play-off against the winners of the play-off between the competitions’ two runners-up. The losing team from that match will enter the final qualification tournament.
The USA qualified for Japan 2019 as Americas 1 for the first time in history, with Uruguay taking the Americas 2 slot. Canada, traditionally the strongest team from North America until the Eagles soared, had to negotiate a tricky repechage tournament in Marseilles to maintain their ever-present tournament record.
With Los Pumas’ involvement already confirmed and a further three places possible, a fifth of the Rugby World Cup 2023 teams could come from the region. USA, Uruguay and Canada will lead the charge again, but Chile, Paraguay and Colombia will also hope to put themselves in the frame.
💯 Perfection.— Fiji Rugby Union (@fijirugby) November 29, 2020
Flying Fijians back on the 🏈field https://t.co/V3BNk2uHWD
Fiji had to go through the regional qualification process to make it through to RWC 2019 as Oceania 1. But they just about did enough to finish third in their pool in Japan and spare themselves the same fate this time around. So that leaves Samoa and Tonga as the two favourites for Oceania 1.
Samoa were not invited to take part in the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987 but have been ever-presents since, while Tonga have competed in every tournament bar 1991 when they failed to qualify.
Both countries have enriched the Rugby World Cup with their presence and the home-and-away play-off between them will be fiercely contested.
The loser will have to negotiate at least three more matches if they are to make it through as Oceania 2. The first assignment will be a one-off game against the winners of the Oceania Cup, won in 2019 by Papua New Guinea. Whoever comes out on top in that game will face a home-and-away play-off against the champions of the Asia Rugby Championship. Hong Kong are the current holders of that title.
Out of Africa…
Namibia will hope to hang onto their status as the African continent’s next-best team to South Africa and qualify for France 2023 as Africa 1. That slot in the draw will be taken by the Rugby Africa Cup 2022 winner. The runner-up will take part in the final qualification tournament.
Zimbabwe and Ivory Coast also have past Rugby World Cup experience, while Kenya got the closest that they have ever done to competing on the sport’s biggest stage when performing well at the RWC 2019 repechage.
Final details of the regional competition formats and dates will be announced in due course.