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Friday, September 30, 2011

Most of Europe left at starting gate for 2014?

Articles appearing on Swedish and Finnish official Facebook pages this week suggest that, in Europe at least, the 2014 Women's Rugby World Cup will be as much of a closed shop as the 2010 tournament.

Although 2010 was a great success this hid the disturbing fact that, of the near 100 nations that play women's rugby (and the over 50 who have played 15-a-side internationals) only just over 20 were able to compete for one of the 12 places in the tournament. No-one from South America was invited at all, South Africa, USA and Canada were selected to represent their regions without any other teams being given a chance to compete, only Samoa from the Pacific Nations had a chance to play for a place (in a one-off game with Australia) and in Europe only 12 of the continents 36 nations were given an opportunity to compete.

With so much longer to prepare this time the hope was that perhaps more countries would be given a chance to make 2014 a truly worldwide competition. But reading between the lines this will not be the case, at least not in Europe. It seems that, while the top eight European nations will be playing for the European Championship next Spring, the next four will be playing on a "European Cup" tournament in Sweden that will - effectively - decide the 5th-8th place seedings for Europe's qualification tournament in 2013.

It does all get a bit complicated, but based on these titbits of information we can probably deduce the following:

  • England and France will automatically qualify for 2014, as runners-up and hosts
  • Either the top two teams from the 2013 Six Nations (or maybe the top two teams from the 2012 European Championship) (other than England and France) will also automatically qualify.
  • The remaining four teams from the European Championship will be ranked 1-4 in European Qualifier, with the European Cup teams ranked 5-8.
  • The top two teams from the European Qualifier will also go through.
The only outstanding question is who exactly will be playing in next springs two tournaments. The European Championship should include the Six Nations plus the top two ranked teams outside the 6N - which should be Spain and Netherlands. But Finland say that the Netherlands will be in Sweden, along with the hosts, Russia and Finland... so who will the eighth European Championship team be? The next best team in Germany - but the Germans are well behind any of these four nations. Maybe they are hosting the European Championship?

Anyway, what this does mean (if it is correct) is that Belgium (who took part in the qualifier in 2009), Switzerland (who made such a successful 15s debut earlier this month), and all of the Balkans and eastern Europe (Russia excepted) are already "out" of 2014 without so much as kicking a ball. Okay, none of these excluded teams would have been likely to have won one of Europe's six WRWC places (assuming Europe does get six again), but that is hardly the point. If the IRB really does want 15-a-side rugby to be anything other than an obscure niche version of the game it needs to at least give these developing nations a chance - but it isn't.

It will be no surprise if Switzerland's first test match is also turns out to be their last, or if Belgium stop playing and instead concentrate on sevens. After all - and in stark contrast to all of the above - it was also revealed that every  European nations will have a chance to qualify for the 2013 Women's Sevens World Cup. The 24 bottom ranked sevens teams (including Wales and - if they take up the offer - Scotland and Ireland) will compete for four places at next summer's European Qualifier, which will also include the top 12 European nations (including England). The top 12 teams will also play in a Women's European Sevens Series (played over at least two tournaments, maybe three) instead of one "Top 12" competition, as has been the case in past years.

So its great news for the continent's sevens players as every nation will have a chance to have a go, rather less good for women who play 15s - unless they live in one of the "lucky" 12 countries.

At this stage there is no word from anywhere else in the world about how the remaining non-European places in Paris will be decided, though Australia and New Zealand will get two. That leaves four places for Africa, the Pacific, Asia, North America, South America and the Caribbean.  How will they be decided - in an IRB boardroom, or on a rugby pitch?

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