World Rugby has announced sweeping changes to its international calendar, moves that formalize the gap between Tier 1 and 2 nations but assure Canada of regular matches.
The world governing body also confirmed the men's World Cup will increase to 24 teams from 20 starting in 2027 in Australia, good news for the 23rd-ranked Canadians who are watching the current tournament in France from the sidelines after missing out on the sport's showcase for the first time ever.
"A new era is about to begin for our sport," World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont told a news conference in Paris. "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 the traditional and often self-imposed boundaries.
"All the boats will rise together."
The centrepiece of the changes is a new two-tiered Nations League-style tournament, held every two years starting in 2026.
The top division will consist of 12 teams — the Six Nations unions (No. 3 Ireland, No. 4 France, No. 5 England, No. 6 Scotland, No. 8 Wales and No. 11 Italy), SANZAAR unions (No. 1 South Africa, No. 2 New Zealand, No. 7 Argentina and No. 9 Australia) and two other unions to be selected by SANZAAR.
Canada would be part of a 12-team second division run by World Rugby.
Promotion and relegation will be added to the biennial tournament in 2030. Games will be played in the July and November international windows.
The vote to approve the changes was reportedly close with a 75 per cent majority of the 51-strong World Rugby Council required. Representation on the Council is weighted with countries like England, New Zealand and South Africa having three representatives while Canada has one.
Rugby Canada CEO Nathan Bombrys, who was in Paris for the deliberations, declined to say how Canada voted other than to say: "Canada is in favour of fixtures, of getting consistent games of rugby for Canada. So we're excited by these changes."
But former Samoan international Daniel Leo was quick to slam the moves.
"Total gaslighting BS by World Rugby saying Tier 2 Nations to be given more 'support.' Technically they have provided the hammer & nails for our coffins," he tweeted.
Bombrys, however, says the changes mean "quality opposition" for the Canadian men, as well as games at home.
"The reality is how often were we getting games with the top tier these last five or six years?" he asked. "This gives us games of rugby and games (in which) we can really test ourselves. And if we perform well, then I think those top-tier countries are going to want to play us."
The new calendar creates space for British and Irish Lions tours, allowing Tier 1 countries to tour during those years with possible fixtures against Tier 2 opposition.
The Canadian men have taken their lumps at the hands of Tier 1 opposition the few times they have met in recent years. Canada was thumped 66-7 by South Africa, 63-0 by England and 48-7 by Italy at the 2019 World Cup in Japan.
Bombrys says he expects the Canadian men to play 10 to 11 games a year under the new calendar.
"That's great. That's what we want," he said.
Canada's August tour to Fiji and Tonga was only confirmed four weeks ahead of the start. And Canada's participation in the La Vila International Rugby Cup, scheduled for Nov. 11-18 in Spain, was only announced Oct. 17 by World Rugby.
"Those facts in themselves speak to just what a challenge we've had," said Bombrys. "And now to be able to look forward to a new competition and, in the coming weeks, to be able to really start planning out our calendar and home games and communicating with our players so they can plan their lives and plan what they're doing to be able to compete for Canada is super-exciting to them."
The Canadian men will also take part in a new annual competition also involving No. 10 Fiji, No. 12 Japan, No. 15 Samoa, No. 16 Tonga and the 18th-ranked Americans, starting in 2024.
The rebranded Pacific Nations Cup, to be played in August and September, will feature a North America/Japan pool and a Pacific Islands pool.
A finals series involving all teams will take place each year, where the champion will be crowned. Japan and the U.S. will host the finals series in alternate years, starting with Japan in 2024.
Round-robin matches will be followed by a final series with the top two in each pool meeting in the semifinals, with the remaining two teams meeting to decided fifth place.
The new-look World Cup, meanwhile, will feature 24 teams in six pools of four with the top two from each group plus the best four third-placed teams moving on to a new round of 16. The tournament will last six weeks with the pool phase reduced from five to four weeks.
World Rugby says the qualification pathway for the 2027 World Cup "will be determined following a full review of France 2023 and consultation with unions and regions."
Canada lost qualifying series to the U.S. (59-50) and No. 22 Chile (54-46) in failing to make the field in France. No. 17 Uruguay and Chile eventually joined Argentina as the Americas representatives at the World Cup.
With the U.S. hosting the World Cup in 2031, there is increasing focus on the competitiveness of the U.S. Eagles
World Rugby says the draw for the 2027 tournament will be made in January 2026 — "as late as possible to best reflect global competitiveness."
The 2023 tournament pools were drawn in December 2020. The rankings had changed by the start of the tournament meaning the top-five nations were on the same side of the draw with three of the five — Ireland, South Africa and Scotland — in the same pool.
Canada is already scheduled to join host No. 19 Spain, No. 26 Brazil and the U.S. next month in the La Vila International Rugby Cup, a new men's tournament in the coastal town of Villajoyosa, 365 kilometres southeast of Madrid.
All four sides failed to qualify for the World Cup.
The matches are the first for the Canadian men since the 28-3 and 36-12 losses in Tonga in August.
On the women's side, World Rugby's WVX, a new three-tiered women's global competition, is currently underway with the fourth-ranked Canadians competing in the top tier in New Zealand.
And the world governing body says calendar changes in the women’s game mean "clearly defined global and regional player release periods for the first time with no domestic competition overlap," ahead of an expanded 16-team World Cup in 2025.
"We have a better future for men's 15s rugby and we have a better future for women's 15s rugby … There are more opportunities, there's more certainty for more nations as a result of today's decisions than there's ever been," said Alan Gilpin, World Rugby's chief executive.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 24, 2023.
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press