St Vincent and the Grenadines will host Jamaica on 5 March in a test match that symbolises all that is exciting about the modern game. Whether either of those particular teams will be playing at the next Rugby World Cup in Japan remains to be seen but the fact is both have the opportunity to do so. Indeed, every full member of World Rugby can now aspire to playing the game at the highest level.

While the opening ceremony is still three and a half years away, the Rugby World Cup 2019 begins in earnest this month. In total, RWC now features more than 90 nations. The qualifiers comprise around 200 matches, featuring in excess of 3,000 players across six continents, including the emerging rugby markets of Brazil, Russia, India and China as well as USA and Mexico.

Rugby participation has increased to 7.73 million owing to a combination of World Rugby investment in grass-roots programmes such as Get Into Rugby, the positive effect of being included in the Olympic Games programme and the global reach of the game’s flagship tournament. The fact all national teams have a pathway towards the top has given every side a knowledge of its place in global rankings and, more importantly, a clear vision as to how to move onwards and upwards.

Rugby World Cup provides an international stage to promote the game and it generates 90 per cent of the revenue World Rugby invests in achieving its strategic goals, including growing the global game. Therefore the success of the tournament is vital for achieving World Rugby’s strategic goals.

Eight places are up for grabs

As far as RWC 2019 is concerned, qualification is split into regional tournaments with eight places ultimately up for grabs. 

World Rugby Chairman Bernard Lapasset said: “The qualifying teams did themselves proud at Rugby World Cup 2015 and we are committed to improving further the competitiveness of the qualifier process off the back of that success.

“This qualifying structure gives opportunities to all full member unions to play in a competitive global World Rugby tournament and create a benchmark for them within the context of the World Rugby Rankings. In the process, we are also bringing rugby to new commercial markets so we can create a more attractive and marketable event in itself, which in turn helps with global participation rates through World Rugby investment.

“It is important that through this process, ambitious unions can take ownership of their own development, implement effective strategic plans and aspire towards breaking through to the next level.”

Japan will extend a warm welcome

Japan Rugby 2019 Chief Executive Akira Shimazu said: “We at the RWC 2019 organising committee and our host cities are very excited with the fact that the qualifying process is starting. The entire nation of Japan will give all teams and fans a huge welcome in 2019.

“From attending and observing RWC 2015, as well as receiving a full debrief from the organisers, we have learned a lot from their experience and we are thrilled to be entering a new phase of preparation for what will be Asia’s first Rugby World Cup. We will continue to work hard to make it a ground-breaking tournament of which everyone can be proud.”

With 12 teams having secured their place at Japan 2019 courtesy of finishing in the top three of their respective pools, the remaining eight places will be determined by a process of regional and cross-regional qualifiers and, for the first time, a stand-alone round-robin repechage tournament to determine the final qualifier in 2018. 

RWC 2019 qualification principles 

  • 12 automatic qualifiers: Top three teams in each Rugby World Cup 2015 pool automatically qualify for Japan 2019 (New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Argentina, Ireland, Scotland, France, Wales, Georgia, Japan, England and Italy)
  • One European qualifier: The highest-ranked team from the Rugby Europe Championship 2018 (excluding Georgia) will qualify for RWC 2019
  • Two Oceania qualifiers: Two teams to qualify for RWC 2019 from the Pacific Nations Cup played on a home and away basis 
  • One Europe/Oceania play-off qualifier: The third place team from the Pacific Nations Cup will play a home and away play-off with the second-ranked team in the Rugby Europe Championship (excluding Georgia) with the winner on aggregate qualifying for RWC 2019. The loser will qualify for the repechage tournament
  • Two Americas qualifiers: Canada and USA will play home and away with the winner on aggregate qualifying for RWC 2019. The loser will play home and away against the top-ranked South American team (excluding Argentina) home and away with the winner on aggregate qualifying for RWC 2019. The loser of this match qualifies for the repechage tournament
  • One African qualifier: The winner of the Rugby Africa Championship will qualify for RWC 2019. The runner-up will play in the repechage tournament
  • Asia/Oceania play-off for repechage place: The highest-ranked team from the Asia Rugby Championship (excluding Japan) will play home and away against the winner of the Oceania Cup with the winner on aggregate qualifying for the repechage tournament
  • One repechage qualifier: The repechage tournament will feature four teams playing in a round-robin format with the winners qualifying for RWC 2019
  • Within a process designed to broaden opportunity and deliver the top teams in performance to rugby's showcase event, there will be no direct qualifier from Asia owing to Japan’s qualification from RWC 2015, though there will be an opportunity for the highest-ranked side from the Asia Rugby Championship to qualify via the repechage tournament, as was the case for RWC 2015.
  • Despite not claiming an automatic berth, there is an opportunity for all three Pacific Island nations to qualify for Japan 2019 with a new Pacific Nations Cup across June 2016 and 2017 delivering two qualifiers and further opportunity via a new Europe/Oceania play-off. Additionally, the Oceania Cup winners will play the highest-ranked Asia Rugby Championship team for a place in the repechage tournament.

While England was awarded RWC 2015 as a mature rugby market which could generate record spectator numbers and commercial returns, growing the game is a key consideration for RWC 2019 in Japan. Asia is a critical market for future growth and Japan is the traditional leader of rugby in Asia. 

A successful tournament in Japan has the potential to generate significant interest in the game in Asia and ignite an exciting rugby market. With 60 per cent of the global population and 80 per cent of the world’s youth living in Asia, this interest could have a considerable impact on the development of global rugby.