Men’s Rugby World Cup to expand amid historic calendar reform

The Stade de France hosts the opening match of Rugby World Cup 2023 between France and New Zealand

Featured image credit: JaumeBG/CC BY-SA 4.0/Edited for size

The Stade de France hosts the opening match of Rugby World Cup 2023 between France and New Zealand

Featured image credit: JaumeBG/CC BY-SA 4.0/Edited for size

World Rugby has announced that the men’s Rugby World Cup (RWC) will expand to 24 teams for Australia’s staging of the 2027 tournament, as part of substantial reform of the global men’s and women’s calendars dubbed a “seminal moment” for the sport.

World Rugby made the announcement today (Tuesday) as this year’s RWC draws to a close in France. The governing body said expansion of the men’s event from 20 to 24 teams in 2027 will offer more qualification opportunities for more teams and regional competitions.

In May 2022, Australia and the USA were awarded hosting rights to the 2027 and 2031 editions of the men’s RWC, respectively, with the two countries also set to host future women’s tournaments.

World Rugby confirmed the host countries for the five editions of its World Cup from 2025 onwards. England will host the women’s tournament in 2025, before the event heads to Australia in 2029 and the US in 2033.

Set to take effect from 2026, World Rugby said reform of Regulation 9 governing international player release has paved the way for the global club and international game to complement each other for the first time, with clearly defined windows of release for international duties, as well as enhanced player welfare outcomes in the form of Player Load Guidelines.

In the men’s game, new competition structures coupled with an increased level of cross-over fixtures between the high performance and performance unions, intend to deliver long-term certainty of content for the first time, supporting increases in competitiveness, interest and value ahead of a landmark 2031 RWC in the USA.  

Along with World Cup expansion, 2026 will see the launch of a new bi-annual international competition comprising a top division of 12 teams (Six Nations unions, SANZAAR unions and two further unions to be selected via a process run by SANZAAR – the umbrella body of South African, New Zealand, Australian and Argentinian rugby), and a second division run by World Rugby of 12 teams with promotion and relegation commencing from 2030.

Played in the July and November international release windows, it will attempt to provide crucial opportunities, and certainty of fixtures, for unions currently outside of the existing annual competitions, and in turn provide opportunities for unions and regional associations through to the second division.

A new annual expanded Pacific Nations Cup competition will launch in 2024, featuring Canada, Fiji, Japan, Samoa, Tonga and USA with home fixtures and Japan and USA alternating as finals hosts, guaranteeing a minimum of three additional matches a year in addition to the new international competition and cross-over fixtures.

In the women’s game, today’s decision means clearly defined global and regional player release periods for the first time with no domestic competition overlap, opening the way to a harmonious structure that seeks to promote opportunity and growth ahead of an expanded 16-team Rugby World Cup in 2025.

World Rugby said there will also be a framework to review the women’s global calendar and international competition structures on an ongoing basis to recognise this “fast-evolving environment and opportunity”.

The reform follows what World Rugby claims has been “extensive consultation” with the professional game, including regions, unions, domestic and international competitions, and detailed evaluation of the playing, commercial and fan landscape. Implementation of the agreed package will continue to involve dialogue with all parties.

World Rugby chairman, Sir Bill Beaumont, said: “It is fitting that we finish Rugby World Cup 2023, the sport’s greatest celebration of togetherness, with the sport’s greatest feat of togetherness.

“Agreement on the men’s and women’s global calendars and their content is the most significant development in the sport since the game went professional. An historic moment for our sport that sets us up collectively for success.

“We now look forward to an exciting new era for our sport commencing in 2026. An era that will bring certainty and opportunity for all. An era that will support the many, not the few, and an era that will supercharge the development of the sport beyond its traditional and often self-imposed boundaries.”