The International Rugby League (IRL) has confirmed that the 2025 Rugby League World Cup has been pushed back to 2026 and that it will be played in the southern hemisphere.
The number of teams competing in the men’s World Cup will be cut from 16 to 10 and it will consist of two pools of three teams and one of four.
At a virtual media conference on Thursday, IRL chairman Troy Grant said bids have already come in from countries interested in hosting the tournament and that the successful bidder will be announced later this year.
“It will be a secured bid, so the bidder won’t be able to pull out,” Grant said. “For further World Cups post that, so 2030 for the men and other future World Cups in the cycle, those bidding processes will go out towards the end of this year so that we have a long-term number of hosts locked in for security going forward.
“And the women after ’26 are moving to a stand-alone World Cup from 2028 onwards in their own four-year cycle.”
In another change, the IRL has decided that international rankings will play a major role for qualifiers for future World Cups. The top eight men’s teams in the rankings will automatically qualify, and they will be restricted to full members of the IRL only.
“Because of our rules, when the World Cup was held quarterfinalists qualified for the next World Cup, so those eight qualifiers (from #rlwc2021) will qualify for ‘26 as per our rules and there will be two qualification positions yet to be filled,” continued Grant.
“We will be consulting our members regarding the qualification process and announcing that as soon as it is constructed.”
He said he has briefed IRL members on regional championships that will be used as qualifying series.
European, Asia-Pacific, Middle East and Africa (MEA) and the Americas tournaments will all lead into a World Series. They will be used as qualifiers for the remaining teams to qualify for the World Cup, however, no date has yet been set for when they will start.
Grant admits that rugby league still has some way to go to get to the place where the IRL would like it to be, which is why new strategies are needed such as securing bids for World Cups.
“Being brutally honest, we are in a sport that has been focused on growth of the game and our membership has increased exponentially,” he said.
“We’ve got people playing rugby league, but we are talking about the World Cup which is the pinnacle event and until we have more time to develop and grow nations and the content becomes more regular and strategically more competitive, then you are always going to have that challenge of having the gap that does nothing for your commercial position, but also doesn’t do a lot for the integrity of the World Cup being the pinnacle of the sport.”
In other developments, Grant said the IRL has also announced that an international calendar will start at the end of 2023 and there will be Tri-nations and Four-nations competitions in both the northern and southern hemispheres. Touring teams will again become the mainstay like the scheduled Tonga tour to England at the end of this year.
The Ashes will also make a return in 2025 with the England men’s and women’s teams touring Australia and Kangaroos and Kiwi tours to the United Kingdom.
The IRL wants to move its Rugby League World Cups away from the FIFA World Cup cycle as that will help lock in TV broadcast rights and in line with that, the IRL will be looking for longer term sponsorships.
Grant also confirmed that while Qatar is not in the running to host the 2026 Rugby League World Cup, it and other Middle Eastern countries have expressed interest in hosting future World Cups.