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World Rugby’s global calendar overhaul labelled ‘stitch-up’ by smaller nations

It was described as “a quantum leap” by Sir Bill Beaumont and “the most significant overhaul of international rugby union since the sport went professional” by World Rugby. And, at first glance, the global Test game is indeed about to undergo a glossy‑looking makeover in the shape of a new 12-team men’s biennial tournament, set to replace traditional tours and kick off in 2026.

For smaller nations stuck outside with their noses pressed to the elite salon windows, however, some markedly different views are already being aired. “Stitch-up” and “closed shop” were among the reactions on social media and it is easy to understand the frustration in Portugal, Spain, Samoa, Uruguay and every other smaller rugby country who must wait until at least 2032 before potentially qualifying for the top table.

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While a “second division” of the as‑yet untitled “Nations Cup” is part of the plan, the top tier will be ring‑fenced until 2030 at the earliest while the new competition beds in, with a promotion/relegation playoff having been agreed in principle but not entirely signed and sealed. This means that sides such the up-and-coming Portugal will have only a sporadic chance of facing one of the home unions, for example, in games played in the shadow of a British & Irish Lions tour or if they are drawn in the same World Cup pool.

After a World Cup in France notable for steady improvements made by many smaller sides, having been permitted more preparation time and exposed to a higher standard of competition, it does not feel like an instantly brave new world. Unsurprisingly that was not the top line in the raft of World Rugby announcements following the crucial final council vote which, after some 11th‑hour anxiety, gained the necessary 75% majority. Among other things, the 2027 Rugby World Cup is to be expanded to 24 nations, shortening the tournament’s duration and adding a round of 16 which will include the four best third‑placed sides from the six pools.

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As many pointed out, however, expanding the World Cup whilst simultaneously forcing smaller sides to play against largely inferior opposition in intervening years sends out distinctly mixed messages in terms of growing the game. Dan Leo, of Pacific Rugby Players Welfare, described the idea as “boring and stale”, suggesting it would have little long-term benefit for smaller nations. “The idea of the tier one nations only ever playing each other is killing the sport and preventing any emerging nation from ever improving,” he wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

World Rugby’s chief executive, Alan Gilpin, however, described it as “really and truly a historic day”, suggesting the sport had “been able to land on something that has been very elusive for rugby for a long time”. His chairman, Beaumont, went further, describing it as “a new era that will bring certainty and opportunity for all [and] support the many, not the few. It will supercharge the development of the sport beyond its traditional and often self-imposed boundaries … we have achieved something special”.

All the Six Nations and Rugby Championship teams will be involved in the Nations Cup top division along with two other sides, almost certainly Japan and Fiji. Fixtures will be arranged on a north v south basis so that England, Wales and Ireland, for example, might travel south in July to play New Zealand, Australia and Fiji before hosting South Africa, Japan and Argentina in November. With France, Scotland and Italy fulfilling the “opposite” fixtures, the two leading teams from the two north/south “conferences” would then meet in the final.

As part of the calendar restructure, the Six Nations championship is also due to be played over six weeks instead of seven, with one fallow week removed, from 2026. The autumn international “window” in November will instead be extended to four weekends, with the extra weekend allowing for a high‑profile grand final to be played.

Officially the hope is that the new arrangements will cause “all boats to rise together”, to quote Beaumont, and bring more investment into the sport than previous old-style tours. The significant caveat is that the top division will be run by the Six Nations and Rugby Championship who will retain all the commercial rights, with no cast-iron guarantees of how much revenue would subsequently be shared with those outside the magic circle.

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It is more than a little premature, then, to pronounce this as rugby union’s most fundamental shift since the Tri-Nations Series, backed by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, was launched in 1995 and effectively ushered in professionalism.

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The International Players’ Union has already raised a quizzical eyebrow, suggesting in a statement that the new model “is not perfect” and that “further improvement needs to be made in key areas” to satisfy the game’s two primary objectives of “growing the game via emerging nations and raising player welfare standards”.

The players’ union chief executive, Omar Hassanein, also called for “more details in relation to the increased opportunities for teams ranked 13 to 24 in the world to pitch themselves against tier one opposition”.

Gilpin, however, is adamant there will be “50% guaranteed more crossover fixtures” between so-called tier one and tier two sides in non-Nations Cup years, with a revised Pacific Nations Cup featuring Canada, Fiji, Japan, Samoa, Tonga and USA due to start in 2024. He also insisted that accusations of the top nations rigging the system for their own benefit were untrue. “The suggestions that this just makes the rich richer are misplaced. This creates a better landscape.”