On 2 June Africa Rugby cancelled all its competitions. It hoped to be able to resume in the last quarter of the year but outlined all the obstacles that make it less than likely – not only the health risks, but the cost of travel and quarantine limitations.
The next day Asia Rugby made a similar announcement, cancelling all competitions over the period 1 July – 30 September 2020.
Even if these and similar bans elsewhere were miraculously lifted by 1 January 2021, it would still leave a string of qualifying matches for the World Cup to be decided, and they would clash with preparations for the Olympic 7s.
The RWC Organising Committee will probably have to decide whether:
a) to go ahead with the tournament with a (much) reduced number of participating nations; or
b) to delay it for a year, mirroring what has happened to the Tokyo Olympics. The second option is far more likely than the first.
Nine nations have already qualified: New Zealand, England, Fiji, France, USA, Canada, Wales. Australia and South Africa. That leaves a large number of other countries anxiously waiting for the starting-pistol in the race to fill the remaining three spots. They include Colombia, Hong Kong, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Netherlands, Russia, Samoa, Scotland, Spain and Tonga.
The new qualifying process set up by World Rugby means that it comes in complex stages. Repechages are due in Asia and Oceania, with yet another to decide who will represent Europe. Though Spain can be confident of winning through to the final European knock-out, the autumn qualifiers involving Ireland, Italy and Scotland are unlikely to take place on time. Colombia and Kenya already know they have to face off against each other.
Rearranging dates for fixtures spread wide across five continents in such a short span of time (say January to Summer 2021) is a monumental task. At this moment it looks impossible. Apart from anything else, it would require Covid-19 to have subsided to an equal extent over all those territories. Then monies have to be found to enable these amateur teams to travel vast distances to fulfil the fixtures.
The original rejigging of the qualifying process was an admirable attempt by WR to widen the appeal of the tournament across the entire world. It’s unfortunate for them that the pandemic has unravelled their carefully laid plans.
It would be a great irony if the host nation, New Zealand, proved to be among the first to be rid of this plague, open to all-comers, but needing to put its big event on hold.