European nations face uphill World Cup battle while 2026 hosting decision delayed

ONLY one other European nation will be able to join England at the 2026 World Cup, the hosts of which will not be decided for another six months.

The International Rugby League (IRL) last week set out the qualification process for the next men’s tournament, which is set to be played in the southern hemisphere.

With eight of the places in a reduced, ten-team competition automatically going to last year’s World Cup quarter-finalists, only two further slots are up for grabs.

They will be decided by a ‘World Series’ event in 2025, which will involve one country from each of IRL’s four regions.

These are Europe, the Americas, Middle East-Africa (MEA), and Asia-Pacific. In the latter case, the only nation not already qualified is Cook Islands.

In addition, only IRL full members as of March 2024 will be eligible for the World Cup, which as it stands would rule out countries including Greece, who played in last year’s tournament.

Currently there is only one IRL full member in the Americas and MEA regions – Jamaica and South Africa respectively (Lebanon have already qualified).

The format means that European nations including France, Ireland, Scotland and Wales will have to compete for a single place in the World Series, likely in a tournament next year.

The other IRL full members in Europe currently are Italy, Serbia and Ukraine. Russia are barred from the international game due to the ongoing war in Ukraine.

The 2026 World Cup will, like in England, include men’s, women’s and wheelchair tournaments.

Only eight nations will compete in the women’s and wheelchair, with the four semi-finalists last year joined by four qualifiers, although the process for determining those is yet to be announced.

The IRL has now confirmed the future calendar for World Cups in all three sections, with each being held separately after 2026.

The following women’s event will be in 2028, and the wheelchair in 2029, before the men’s in 2030. Each will be held every four years thereafter.

An invitation to tender process for prospective hosts will be launched next week for the three World Cups in 2028-30.