Rugby World Cup likely to expand number of competing countries

Next year's Rugby World Cup in Japan could be the last to feature 20 teams, as the governing body looks to expand its horizons and reach out into new territories.

Potentially following football's lead, rugby might increase the number of competing sides at its showpiece event as early as France 2023, but almost certainly four years later.

Expansion: File photo of Wales taking on Australia in the 2015 World Cup.

Photo: PA

If money and power are considered contributing factors to football's decision to take its total teams to 48 by 2026, an increase of 16 countries, rugby's stated intention is to be more inclusive by opening up to emerging nations.

One of the criticisms levelled at the sport is that it has been a closed shop made up of the old-boy founder members.

There was an increase from 16 to 20 teams in the 1999 tournament principally hosted by Wales.

For next year's tournament, a final stages of qualification features a repechage event in Marseille in late November when Kenya, Germany (who have taken on former England defence coach Mike Ford), Hong Kong and Canada will battle it out in a round-robin format to see who goes through to Japan.

Three of those countries have never qualified for a World Cup.

"We're looking from an expansive point of view rather than reducing things, so it's just a question of when rather than if," said Brett Gosper, the World Rugby chief executive. "We haven't opined yet on 2023 [although the assumption is 20 teams], but we could still change that between now and 2023.

"The tendency for us is to look to expand. It's growing the global game, getting interest from fans and commercial interest in new markets to grow the sport. We're definitely in an expansive mindset.

"You have got to make sure, of course, that you've got the teams competitive enough to move to a 24-team tournament."

There have always been qualms about the competitive quality of the emerging countries were they to be pitted against one of the leading contenders, as has happened in previous tournaments.

In the 1995 World Cup in South Africa, Japan were the victims of a record score piled up by New Zealand, who ran in 21 tries when winning 145-17. Whoever qualifies from the repechage in Marseille will go into a pool with the All Blacks.

"We'll work hard in the period from when that team qualifies to ensure they've got all the technical coaches to make sure that team is well coached, well resourced, well trained to ensure that one of our KPI [Key Performance Indicators] of winning margins isn't blown out by one or two games that team might play," said Gosper.

"We are confident the team that qualifies will be competitive enough, even against the All Blacks.

Telegraph, London

Most Viewed in Sport