World Rugby have announced a reform of the men’s and women’s international rugby calendars with the confirmation of a new bi-annual international competition from 2026.
The World Rugby Council met in France today to finalise and vote for the reform of international rugby, with the sport’s governing body announcing the changes.
The need for the club and international game to align their calendars has been a pressing issue in recent years, but the reform looks set to ease those concerns.
“Reform of Regulation 9 governing international player release has paved the way for the global club and international game to complement each other for the first time with clearly defined windows of release for international duties, as well as enhanced player welfare outcomes in the form of Player Load Guidelines,” a World Rugby statement read.
“In the women’s game, the decision means clearly defined global and regional player release periods for the first time with no domestic competition overlap, opening the way to a harmonious structure that promotes opportunity and growth ahead of an expanded 16-team Rugby World Cup in 2025.
“In the men’s game, new competition structures coupled with an increased level of cross-over fixtures between the high performance and performance unions will deliver long-term certainty of content for the first time, supporting increases in competitiveness, interest and value ahead of a landmark Rugby World Cup in the USA in 2031.”
The Nations Championship or World League has also been confirmed, with the bi-annual tournament debuting in 2026.
The new global competition will take place during the existing men’s July and November windows from 2026. It will involve the current Rugby Championship and Six Nations teams as well as two other nations – probably Fiji and Japan.
World Rugby states that this will create “a true pathway for all unions”; however, it will be ring-fenced until 2030 at least.
A second division of the tournament, run by World Rugby, will consist of 12 teams.
“Played in the July and November international release windows, it will provide crucial opportunities (and certainty of fixtures) for unions currently outside of the existing annual competitions, and in turn provide opportunities for unions and regional associations through to the second division,” World Rugby’s statement continued.
World Rugby also announced that the Pacific Nations Cup will be expanded in 2024.
The likes of Canada, Fiji, Japan, Samoa, Tonga and the USA will face off with home fixtures. Japan and the USA will alternate as finals hosts, guaranteeing a minimum of three additional matches a year in addition to the new international competition and cross-over fixtures.
Rugby World Cup expansion, Women’s dedicated windows
Meanwhile, World Rugby have also confirmed that the Rugby World Cup will be expanded from 20 teams to 24 at the tournament in 2027.
This will allow more teams the opportunity to qualify for the tournament and will remove the long breaks in between fixtures that occurred at the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
The reform in the global calendar has also had an impact on the women’s international game.
For the first time ever, a dedicated international release window (regional release window of seven weeks and global release window of eight weeks) from 2026 has been confirmed.
This provides clarity of release periods for club/league and cross-border competitions to allow certainty of planning and investment.
“It is fitting that we finish Rugby World Cup 2023, the sport’s greatest celebration of togetherness, with the sport’s greatest feat of togetherness,” World Rugby Chairman Sir Bill 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. An historic moment for our sport that sets us up collectively for success.
“We now look forward to an exciting new era for our sport 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. I would like to thank all my colleagues for their spirit of collaboration. Today, we have achieved something special.”