Africa, Asia and Europe in contention
It’s been a long, long time coming, but at last it’s here: Kenya’s Lionesses will meet Colombia’s Tucanes in Nairobi on 25 August.
For both the contestants these are heady days; never before have they been so close to taking part in the final stages of a World Cup.
The winner will move forward to the next stage of a qualifying process that looked as though it might never be completed.
The Kenyans will have the huge advantage of a home draw, but they may need it as they lost twice to Madagascar last month at the same stadium in Nairobi. They will warm up further with two tests against South Africa (already qualified) on 12 and 16 August in Stellenbosch.
Las Tucanes have to make the journey from the north-west corner of South America to East Africa, a trek as daunting as a hoped-for visit to the Land of the long white Cloud.
The Asian branch of the qualifiers is a little further distant. On 2, 7 and 12 October Kazakhstan, Hong Kong and Japan will play off against each other to decide who moves forward.
Kazakhstan have by far the most experience of competing at World Cups (1998-2014 unbroken, no less!), but HK and Japan were both in attendance last time round in Dublin. Like so many other rugby nations the Kazaks have been suffering a dreadful lack of funding and playing opportunities over recent years.
Then, to cap it all, the dates and location of the European qualifiers have just been announced. They are strangely incomplete: we know the dates, 15, 19 and 25 October; we know the venue, Parma, and the contestants, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Spain – but not who plays whom on those three dates. Italy won the beauty contest for the right to host the competition; let’s hope that doesn’t give the Azzurre too great an advantage. The alternative might have been to stage the contests in a neutral country, say France or Wales, but there we can imagine Covid-19 having its unwelcome say.
It is a pity that Alison Hughes, in overall charge, could not offer a complete package even after all this enforced delay.
A reminder: the winner moves straight on to New Zealand; the runner-up competes in a final repechage. Given the huge strength of European rugby, we can expect two of those four nations to enjoy the final stages together.
I must once again question the ruling that allows the seven teams finishing top of the preceding RWC automatic qualification. The figure seems unjustly high. Since 2017 that seventh nation, Wales, has done little to deserve its privileged seeding. Wouldn’t four be a sensible alternative in future?