With just over two years to go until Rugby World Cup 2019, World Rugby has confirmed details of an exciting competition and investment programme, giving tier two teams the chance to deepen their squad pool and benchmark against the best at this crucial stage in the four-year cycle.
A busy period of international rugby kicks off in earnest this weekend with a large number of fixtures involving tier one v tier two teams on the horizon as well as crucial Rugby World Cup 2019 qualifiers in North America and Oceania.
RWC 2019’s first of eight qualification spots will be known by 1 July as either USA or Canada will fill that place and join England, France and Argentina as Americas 1 in Pool C. That two-leg play-off will begin on 24 June in Hamilton, Ontario, before the action shifts to San Diego a week later for the return fixture. The team with more points on aggregate across the two matches will qualify for Japan while the losers will play off against Uruguay in a bid to become Americas 2.
The final team in Pool C (Oceania 2) will also be known next month as the winner of the Pacific Nations Cup comes to a thrilling conclusion in Apia, Samoa, on 15 July. The winner of that tournament, involving Samoa, Fiji and Tonga, will slot into Pool D with Australia, Wales and Georgia as Oceania 1 while the runners-up will become the fifth-seeded team in what is sure to be a highly competitive Pool C.
As exciting as those qualifiers will be, there is also an unprecedented programme of tier one v tier two games taking place in June with Samoa playing New Zealand and Wales, Tonga playing Wales, Japan hosting two tests against Ireland, and USA also welcoming Ireland to New Jersey and Georgia to Kennesaw, which interestingly is in the state of Georgia.
The Lelos will also face Canada and Argentina as they look to build on the success of last year’s successful and historic tour of the Pacific Islands while Romania will also be on the road as they take on Canada and Japan.
Fiji will also play against three tier one opponents as they travel to Melbourne to take on the Wallabies before hosting Italy and Scotland in Suva.
With World Rugby committed to closing the competition gap even further, the June schedule is designed to give the top tier two teams another chance to gain experience against the best in the world. All of it is funded through World Rugby’s high-performance (HP) investment programme. That initiative also funds the upcoming World Rugby Nations Cup taking place in Montevideo with Uruguay, Russia, Namibia and Spain (all still in contention for RWC 2019 qualification) testing themselves against an Argentina XV and Emerging Italy. This June, emerging HP union Brazil will also play an historic first-ever test match in Romania.
World Rugby Head of Competitions and Performance Mark Egan said: "Following the most competitive and compelling Rugby World Cup to date in 2015, World Rugby continues to be committed to supporting tier two nations with high quality fixtures and high-performance support. It’s vital that the gap continues to narrow as we strive to make RWC 2019 even more competitive and unpredictable.
"Our HP investment programme of more than £40 million over the last four-year cycle meant that tier two sides conceded fewer points and scored more tries against their tier one opposition at Rugby World Cup 2015 than in any previous tournament, and we are committed to closing the gap further as we work towards the next Rugby World Cup in Japan in 2019.”
Annually, World Rugby’s investment in the 15s competition programme for HP tier two unions is £3.5 million, which includes the June and November international windows, Nations Cup, Pacific Nations Cup, Pacific Challenge and Americas Pacific Challenge.
That is in addition to the £2.5 million per annum spent on the World Rugby U20 Championship and Trophy which underpins the tier two and tier one union academy and elite player pathway programmes.
To reflect the strategic significance of the tier two HP investment programme and an endorsement of the success of tier two performances at RWC 2015, World Rugby EXCO agreed to an increase of £2 million per annum in direct HP grant funding to HP tier two unions from 2017-19. Total direct grants to those 10 unions have increased from £4.6m in 2016 to £6.6m in 2017.
An additional £500,000 was allocated to emerging HP unions Germany and Brazil in recognition of their strategic market importance and significant improvements in results over the past two years.
The international fixture list for November will be announced in due course.