After 16 years of discussions, progress, regress, the COVID pandemic, and inter-hemisphere, club and country squabbles, rugby appears to have its immediate future sorted.
World Rugby on Tuesday declared a "new era" for the game lay ahead, confirming the creation of an aligned and harmonized international calendar, the introduction of a biennial Nations Championship concept, and the expansion of the men's Rugby World Cup from 2027.
While the changes weren't universally agreed on by the World Rugby Council, the governing body acknowledged the collaboration between all international unions, provincial clubs and leagues, and regional alliances that had helped to map a path for the game into the next decade.
World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont lauded the announcement as a "quantum leap forward" for the game, a statement that may draw a wry smile, or even unabashed anger, from some developing rugby nations, including those who performed so credibly at Rugby World Cup 2027.
His colleague and WR chief executive Alan Gilpin, was perhaps a touch more circumspect in addressing the hotly debated Nations League: "Is it perfect? No. Is it a hell of a lot better than the current situation? Absolutely."
Read on as we answer some of the key questions from Tuesday's historic announcement.
NATIONS CHAMPIONSHIP: WHAT IS IT AND HOW WILL IT WORK?
Various plans for this concept have been tabled over the past few years, which were met with almost equal parts support and objection along the way. But after a two-thirds majority voted in favour of World Rugby's proposed changes on Tuesday, the Nations League -- or whatever it ends up being called -- will officially kick off in 2026.
The tournament will bring together the Six Nations and Rugby Championship countries, plus two further "invited" international unions -- expected to be Japan and Fiji -- in a north-south style biennial event that will be played in non-World Cup and non-British & Irish Lions Tour years.
There will be a "European Conference", which will be made up of the Six Nations teams, and a "Rest of the World Conference" that will comprise the Rugby Championship countries, plus the invited nations. The teams will only play the six nations in their opposing conference across the July and November Test windows, with a final then to be played at the end of that second window between the two first-placed finishers in each conference, the winner of which would then be declared tournament champion.
Kicking off in 2026, there would be just the one cycle before the next World Cup, before the competition is then repeated in 2028 and 2030, that final year the first that will determine promotion and relegation from/to what will effectively be a second division, whose teams are yet to be determined but will be drawn from the Rugby Europe Championship, an expanded Pacific Nations Cup and teams from South America, Africa and Asia.
World Rugby hopes to finalise those qualification details "within six months", as it also needs to map out a pathway for how the additional four teams will qualify when the World Cup expands to 24 countries in 2027.
WHY HAVE THEY SET IT UP?
There is no doubt that rugby's global calendar needing some major renovation, that the two hemispheres were more closely aligned to achieve a better product, a sensical fixture list and improved player welfare.
But key factor in this change is that the game needs to create more revenue to help fund its future, and the theory is that a meaningful global tournament that is contested every second year will be an attractive proposition for broadcasters, whose money represents the backbone of any sport played at the professional level.
By having more "meaningful" content that is of global interest, rather than the current three-Test tours of the southern hemisphere in July, or succession of one-off Tests across Europe in November, the hope is that broadcasters will compete for the product because of its added drama and narrative.
While the Nations Championship will be administered by the Six Nations and SANZAAR, World Rugby is adamant that any revenue will be shared for the game's wider health into the future.
"There will be some World Rugby involvement in that to make sure we fund division two in the first instance, because it will be about expenditure rather than revenues in the earlier years while we establish this. Then [we] work all together to drive revenues for the benefit of all," chief executive Alan Gilpin said.
Gilpin also rejected the suggestion that this would only benefit rugby's "old boys" financially, describing such assertions as "misplaced".
WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR TIER 2/DEVELOPING NATIONS?
Critics are right to be cynical that World Rugby has largely turned the stewardship of this competition over to the Six Nations and SANZAAR, who represents rugby's established unions and the "old boys" network that has basically controlled the game since even long before it turned professional.
While the Unions involved across those two alliances recognise the need to grow the game globally, there is also a fair amount of self-interest at play and the obvious fact that their main priority will be their own backyards', hence why promotion/relegation has been put off until 2032.
Developing nations like Portugal, Georgia, Uruguay, Chile and Samoa have every right to feel as though they have been overlooked, but it is interesting to note that some reports said Samoa voted through World Rugby's changes, while SANZAAR-aligned Argentina did not.
The secondary division will at least give 12 nations a guaranteed set of fixtures outside of their respective regional championships, though their desire for more games against Tier 1 -- as was voiced by the coaches of Samoa, Chile and Uruguay over recent weeks -- will be reliant on the Six Nations and SANZAAR unions organizing such fixtures in either World Cup or Lions years.
When the 2030 Nations Championship and second division tournaments do roll around, however, and with the promotion/relegation games, it will be must-watch viewing, akin to those we see in various football leagues at the end of their respective seasons.
DOES THAT MEAN RUGBY CHAMPIONSHIP EXPANSION IS OFF THE TABLE?
It certainly looks that way, particularly since World Rugby also unveiled an expanded and "annual" Pacific Nations Cup beginning in 2024. That competition will add the United States and Canada to this year's combatants Japan, Samoa, Fiji and Tonga, with the six teams to be split into two pools. [Samoa, Tonga, Fiji; Japan, USA, Canada.]
The tournament will be played in the August-September release window that also governs the Rugby Championship and will give each team at least three games. Those include two round-robin pool games and then a rankings game as part of a finals series that will be held in Japan or the United States in alternating years.
As a result, it appears there is no path to Rugby Championship expansion for the foreseeable future, despite outgoing Fiji coach Simon Raiwalui saying his team was ready for the challenge and other reports that there were "ongoing discussions" about the Pacific islanders' inclusion. As for Japan, it is understood that the suggested broadcast revenue the Brave Blossoms' inclusion might add isn't necessarily that lucrative.
What that all means is that SANZAAR remains content with the current status quo of South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina, and the "mini-tours" format it moved to in 2022 continuing into the future.
Certainly there was no mention of "expansion" in SANZAAR's media release on Tuesday night.
WHAT HAPPENS IN LIONS/WORLD CUP YEARS?
Those years when the Nations Championship are not contested will largely resemble what they have done previously, with the Six Nations and Rugby Championship contested as usual [the latter shortened as it is in World Cup years], while individual unions will then engage in fixtures outside of those tournaments across the July and November windows.
World Rugby said that in those years it is expecting a 50% increase in matches between Tier 1 and developing nations, which combined with regional tournaments like the expanded Pacific Nations Cup, will provide vital fixtures for nations like Tonga, Portugal, Uruguay and co.
"In addition, the package that was agreed today provides for more crossover fixtures for what we used to call Tier 1 and Tier 2 fixtures in the years when this championship isn't being played than is currently the case," Gilpin said. "So, 50% more guaranteed crossover fixtures in those other years than is currently the case, in addition to guaranteed fixtures against their peers that they don't currently have.
"It isn't just about opportunities to play against the teams that are ranked higher. If you are Samoa, or USA, or Portugal, other than your current regional competition, you have no guaranteed fixtures next year, or in 2025, or in 2026. These competitions will start to guarantee July fixtures, November fixtures with real meaning, scheduled in advance. And in the years in between, the opportunity to be a part of those crossover fixtures."
HOW WILL A 24-TEAM RUGBY WORLD CUP WORK?
Talk that the game's showpiece event would be expanded from 20 to 24 teams for the men's tournament from 2027 had been doing the rounds throughout the current World Cup, and it was finally confirmed on Tuesday.
Some may feel that it has come too soon, that the performances of Namibia and Romania, in particular, show that the Rugby World Cup is simply not ready to increase by four further places.
But imagine if Portugal had lost its repechage qualifier to the United States in 2022, and Os Lobos had not been in France as a result? Given how the Portuguese performed, producing one of the few upsets of the tournament over Fiji, that would have been a crying shame.
The 2027 tournament, which will be held in Australia, will be the first to involve 24 teams, who will then be split into six pools of four, from which the top two and four highest ranked third-place teams will advance to a Round of 16. There appears to be no appetite for a sevens-style bowl/plate tournament comprising those teams who do not make the Round of 16, despite suggestions to the contrary in recent weeks.
The pool phase will reduce from five weeks to four as a result, with the total duration of the World Cup reduced to six weeks [seven weekends].
As is the case with the make-up of the second division of the Nations Championship, or Challenger Series as it was dubbed by SANZAAR, just how the four additional qualifiers are determined for the next World Cup will be revealed in the next six months.
However, it is expected that the Americas would be in line for an additional place given the rise of the game in that part of the world, particularly South America, while South Africa will be a powerful ally for a second African spot.
World Rugby will be desperate to ensure the United States' qualification for 2027, given the are hosting the 2027 event, regardless, while the improvements of Portugal and Spain suggest another European place will be a target, too.
HAS THE DRAW BEEN PUSHED BACK?
World Rugby confirmed the draw for the 2027 Rugby World Cup would be held in January 2026, with the tournament to kick-off on Oct. 1, 2027. That would mean there would be roughly a 22-month gap between the staging of the draw and the opening game of the 2027 World Cup, as opposed to the near-three-year spread that resulted in the lopsided 2023 draw of the current tournament.
The 2027 World Cup will also have clean air in Australia after World Rugby agreed to shift its kick-off back by a fortnight, meaning a clash with the local NRL and AFL Grand Finals will be avoided.