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Wild card system proposed for future Rugby World Cups

By Kim Ekin
Finn Russel with ball in hand for Scotland. Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

The 2023 Rugby World Cup has rightfully been labelled the most unpredictable in history, and there are calls to capitalise on that quality of competition by expanding the tournament to accommodate more of the world’s top nations.


Expanding each pool by one team would, from a logistical perspective, of course, extend the length of pool play and the tournament as a whole.

Of greater value than logistics is the growth of the game and fan engagement, both of which would likely be boosted by the inclusion of more countries – especially if it were to be big markets like the United States.

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Less established rugby nations are always looking for more opportunities to play top talent and the Rugby World Cup has always offered that opportunity, so facilitating more opportunities for growth adds merit to the idea.

Key to the discussion is not just what you do but how you do it and the Aotearoa Rugby Pod proposed an innovation within the Rugby World Cup structure that could accommodate the new teams and offer more of the drama of knockout rugby.

Podcast host Ross Karl explained the wildcard system which was sent in by a listener.

“The first-place team would get a bye after the pool play and automatically qualify for the quarter-final,” he said. “The second and third-placed teams in the pools would enter into a wildcard round to qualify for a quarter-final.

“This would add more meaningful games and help develop the teams that are knocking on the door of top-tier rugby.”



Adding more teams without the wildcard system would see 16 of the 24 teams pack their bags after the pool stages, while the inclusion of the wildcard system would extend four more of those teams’ World Cup campaigns.

Incorporating the idea could help level out any imbalance in the draw, which could have had interesting consequences in this year’s pool makeup if it had been employed.

“I really love what he’s suggested,” former All Black James Parsons said of the idea.

“So, teams like Scotland, they’re probably worthy of a quarter-final but are likely to miss out. Samoa or Argentina or Japan potentially having a second lick at the cherry and whoever wins gets rewarded, which would mean a team like Australia would get a second chance and then you create a narrative that’s interesting to fans.


“It’s very American I suppose in terms of the wildcard (concept), but I think it’s awesome.

“It makes the tournament longer, it’s an extra game. It’s probably more positive in terms of the game of rugby, in terms of the narrative and the excitement than just adding four more teams that get pumped by 90 – with all due respect.”

American sports leagues have found great success in the wildcard system, it exists in some variation in each of the national sports leagues.

The NBA recently adopted a “play-in” tournament where each division’s six-through-ten-ranked seeds get an opportunity to make the eight-team playoffs.

The system still rewards the higher-ranked teams with home-court advantage and a more direct route to the playoffs in the decisive one-off games.

Without the potential for home-field advantage at a Rugby World Cup, it’s unclear how or if the higher-ranked team would be rewarded for their superior record – other than facing a lower seed from a different pool.

The top four ranked national men’s teams not currently competing at the Rugby World Cup are the USA, Spain, Canada and Hong Kong China.


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Tris 291 days ago

Isnt this similar to the play off setting in France. Its not just a US thing.
Have to think about how to make sure everybody avoids their pool teams later on.
Only thing is the break week added to the current break week could lead to big gaps for some teams.

Kenny 291 days ago

Combining the wildcard and plate competition concepts brings depth and excitement to the tournament while fostering inclusivity. It offers lower-ranked teams a platform to showcase their talents and, in turn, elevates the global rugby community. Only makes rugby more accessible and engaging for fans worldwide but also marks a promising start.

In retrospect, this format probably surpasses the previously proposed "world league" competition. It's evident that prioritising these changes ahead of the 2023 World Cup would have been a more fitting tribute to the remarkable support demonstrated by the French rugby community for tier 2 nations. The fans and the atmosphere have been nothing short of extraordinary, particularly during the tier 2 vs. tier 2 matchups. The scenes from the South Africa vs. Ireland clash were nothing short of a true spectacle, adding to the tournament's allure.

Jeff 291 days ago

Got to go by group placement first,then the knockout stage, don't like this idea at all keep it in the states.

Nickers 291 days ago

Some of the issues can be sorted by having the pool seeding done much closer to the competition as they will now do. Pools of death are unavoidable.

Given the physicality of professional rugby and already packed calendar adding an extra game for teams before the QF would put them at a huge disadvantage.

The reality is the Tier 2 teams haven't actually gotten better in the last 4 years, and some like Japan and Romania have gotten worse. I'm not sure adding more of these teams in makes sense at the moment.

A plate for the 3rd and 4th placed teams from each pool is a good idea I think. That is where there is the best chance for someone like Georgia or Uruguay to come out as surprise champions. What are the downsides of this? Cost to the host?

Julian 291 days ago

Similar to what happened in the 1999 World Cup? World Rugby needs a bit of vision. I liked the idea of having a plate competition running in parallel, maybe on the Monday/Tuesday with the top 16 teams in the next tier playing. Can’t remember if that was Pichot’s vision or someone else’s.

Michael 291 days ago

Anything that makes it more engaging for fans, and interesting as a competition is a good thing. This doesn't address certain teams being more competitive however!
Pre-world Cup competition would. ATeams, invitational teams from bigger nations playing development nations would, plus better club tournaments. From the u18 U20 world tournaments, which needs expanding to the global showcase, WORLD CUP. The tournament should be expanded to 24 teams, that's the future. What about having a plate tournament within the competition for teams finishing 3rd and 4thin a group, and give them something to play for. Be a good gauge of where their at as well.

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