World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont said on Tuesday the sport was entering an “exciting new era” with the unveiling of a new bi-annual international competition from 2026, but the plans did not receive universal approval from rugby’s smaller nations.
The new competition will comprise a top division of 12 teams from the Six Nations and the southern hemisphere’s Rugby Championship.
Two further countries — thought likely to be Japan and Fiji — will be invited to make up the dozen, and matches will be played in July and November.
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There will be a second division also made up of a dozen teams, although promotion and relegation will not come into operation until 2030.
However, if Beaumont thought the changes would satisfy second-tier nations, his hopes were disabused by Samoan fly-half Lima Sopoaga.
The 32-year-old told AFP the plans were “a slap in the face” for tier-two teams.
“Being excluded from this is incredibly frustrating, for me it’s not what rugby is meant to be about, the so-called rugby values that everyone talks about,” said Sopoaga, who previously played 16 Tests for New Zealand.
The new competition — yet to be given a name — will replace the current summer and autumn international windows.
Beaumont said: “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.
“(It is) a historic moment for our sport that sets us up collectively for success.
“We now look forward to an exciting new era 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.” Six Nations Rugby hailed the overhaul as a “player-led reform” and said it would adapt its women’s and men’s tournaments accordingly.
“The senior Men’s Six Nations will move to five match weekends run over a six-week block, with further rest periods for international players leading out of competitions and throughout the season.” The Women’s Six Nations will start three weeks later than the current calendar.
‘A DAMN SHAME’
For some second-tier nations there is also a new tournament, a revamped Pacific Nations competition involving Canada, Fiji, Japan, Samoa, Tonga and USA.
The Pacific Nations Cup, which will be played in the southern hemisphere release window of August and September, will feature two pools of three teams — a North America/Japan pool and a Pacific Islands pool with each union hosting matches.
A finals series involving all teams will take place each year, where the annual champions will be confirmed. Japan will host the first finals in 2024.
Beaumont said this would resolve fears expressed by coaches of second-tier nations during the ongoing World Cup in France of a lack of Test match rugby in the four-year cycle.
Sopoaga said he was unsure what a better alternative was, but it is “not this one, that’s for sure.” “Rugby’s meant to be everybody’s game but it seems like it’s only for the rich and for those nations with money,” he said.
World Rugby also announced the men’s Rugby World Cup will enlarge from 20 nations to 24 for its next edition in Australia in 2027.
The sport’s governing body said in a statement that adding four nations to the World Cup would “provide more qualification opportunities for more teams and regional competitions”.
The move comes despite several mismatches in the pool stages of the ongoing World Cup, which culminates in Saturday’s final between defending champions South Africa and New Zealand.
Of the tier-two nations, only Fiji reached the knockout stages, beating Australia in the pool for the first time in 69 years on the way, but they also lost to Portugal.
Sopoaga said the moves made it harder for Samoa — who lost by just one point to eventual semi-finalists England in the pool stage — to be competitive at the next World Cup.
“Samoa played 12 Tests between 2019 and 2023 and only two of those were against tier-one nations,” he said.
“Tier-two teams can’t just wait every four years to give it a crack. It’s a damn shame.”
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