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World Rugby announced on Tuesday it had made several radical changes to the sport’s calendar that it hoped would take the game into an new era and which it said was the final step in a long-term review of the game and its future.
The changes includes an expanded 24-team men's World Cup, a two-tier Nations League competition which would eventually offer lower-ranked sides more opportunity to play against top opposition and a new aligned international calendar.
“If rugby is going to become a truly global sport, we simply have to make it more relevant, more accessible to more people around the world,” WR chairman Sir Bill Beaumont told a news conference in Paris.
"It's fitting that we finish this, the sport’s greatest celebration of togetherness, with the sport’s greatest feat of togetherness, the most significant development in the sport since the game went professional.
Promised changes to rugby’s traditional order have been debated for more than a decade but have routinely met with opposition from the sport’s superpowers and Beaumont admitted the new plans had dissenters. “But on the whole there was a pretty significant vote in favour of the two competitions,” he told reporters.
The 2027 World Cup in Australia will expand from the current 20 to 24 teams, split into six first-round groups containing four sides each. There will be a round of 16 added and, despite more competing sides, the tournament will be shortened from seven weeks to six.
WR said the draw for the next World Cup would be made in January 2026, the latest it has ever been held before a tournament.
It follows criticism that the draw for the World Cup in France, based on rankings from the 2019 tournament partly due to Covid-19, was made too early and led to lopsided competition with one side of the draw packed with top-ranked teams.
One of the long-running issues at World Cups has been unhappiness from Tier Two nations about a lack of regular, competitive matches, with complaints about being excluded from a ‘closed shop’.
WR said they had addressed this by the introduction of a Nations League competition, with two 12-team divisions.
It would start in 2026 and, although its format was not revealed, would see a top division comprising sides from the Six Nations and Rugby Championship, and reportedly Japan and Fiji, meeting every two years in the July and November international windows.
There will be a second division with a further 12 teams, which will be run by World Rugby. There will be promotion and relegation between the two divisions, but only from 2030.
WR promised that in the years when the Nations League was not played there would be "a significant uplift in the number of cross-over matches between unions in the respective divisions".
There will also be a new, annual expanded Pacific Nations Cup competition in 2024 featuring Canada, Fiji, Japan, Samoa, Tonga and the United States.
“We now look forward to an exciting new era for our sport commencing in 2026," Beaumont said.
"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."
There will also be a first dedicated international release window in the women’s game from 2026, with a review of the global calendar and competition structures promised in the future.
WR also said there would be a "commitment to more effectively manage player load and welfare in the fast-evolving women’s game".