When 2019’s World Cup kicks off in Tokyo, rugby will break new ground.
It will be the first time that the showcase tournament is held in Asia. It will also be the first time that tournament is not hosted by one of the traditional rugby nations.
Rugby is a growing game, and one of the best ways of increasing sports popularity is having live matches on offer to developing nations. Japan certainly fits into this category and there’s hope that hosting the World Cup in the land of the rising sun will broaden the game’s appeal to the various Asian countries.
Of course, as the flagship event, there are also expectations that the World Cup will turnover considerable revenue for World Rugby in order to better fund the game.
Those are effectively the two primary criteria that World Rugby are aiming to meet when they elect nations to host the World Cup. Of course, there are other requirements of host nations, such as having the stadiums and transport systems in place to host a massive sporting event – requirements which have crippled some nation’s attempts at hosting the tournament in the past.
In recent times, World Rugby seems to be aiming for a balanced approach to selecting hosts: hold one World Cup in a still-developing rugby nation, then hold the next at a guaranteed revenue churner.
2011’s tournament in New Zealand was never expected to be the biggest profit maker for World Rugby, but it brought the tournament back to the location of its first ever iteration for the first time in 24 years.
2015 saw the competition hosted by England – probably the safest location if you want to guarantee turning a profit.
While there’s every expectation that 2019 will still do well in the revenue stakes, hosting the tournament in Asia for the first time will hopefully grow the rugby market and increase future revenues. Should 2019 not be as profitable as is hoped, then the 2023 tournament in France will make up for some of the shortfalls.
Where, then, should the rugby’s highest stage be taken next?
With the 2023 event likely to be a booming success, World Rugby can potentially afford to take the competition to an emerging nation in 2027 – like they are in 2019. Of course, the decision ultimately comes down to a vote, so a major factor will be the kinds of bids that the proposed hosts put forward. 2027 may strike as a great time to take the World Cup somewhere new, but you can be sure that there are some countries that will continue to push their claim for the tournament when they’ve failed in the past.
So where could the potential bids come from for 2027?
Only two of the tier-1 nations are yet to host matches in a Rugby World Cup: Italy and Argentina.
Italy first bid for the tournament in 2015 but lost out to England. They refrained from making formal bids for the 2019 and 2023 World Cups.
There’s a lot to like about the idea of Italy hosting a World Cup.
Purely as a tourist destination, Italy would rank fairly highly for many people around the world with plenty to do and see. Italy is, of course, very close to some of the biggest rugby nations around and is very accessible to fans from the United Kingdom, Ireland and France.
Structurally, Italy has everything it needs to host a major sporting event.
Stadio Olimpico, Italy’s home ground, can hold over 70,000 people and is the perfect spot for a final. Italy’s other major rugby ground, the Stadio Flamino, is also based in Rome. In order to host the crowds required for the 50 odd matches played, Italy will have to resort to using some of their football fields for matches – which will naturally require some extra investment. Florence, Naples, Turin, Milan – all cities have sizeable stadiums which could be used to host rugby matches. The Italian team regularly fills up Stadio Olimpico, even with less than encouraging results – so there’s obviously a good appetite for the sport in the country.
Equally importantly, Italy has high-speed domestic trains which could transport fans across the country. Given the relatively small size of the country from a geographical point of view, transport would not be a problem for the European nation.
Rugby is slowly becoming more popular in Italy, ever since the introduction of the national team to the Six Nations. While there hasn’t been a marked improvement in the national team’s performance, the provincial sides taking part in the Pro14 are showing signs that Italy could have a solid future ahead of them. Perhaps a World Cup is all that would be needed to boost player numbers enough to start a rugby revolution.
Italy would, in all likelihood, be able to host an excellent Rugby World Cup. Perhaps the biggest obstacle the country would face is that the 2023 competition is already being hosted in mainland Europe. Never before have consecutive tournaments been hosted on the same continent. In fact, until this year, tournaments have always rotated between the northern and southern hemispheres. Italy will likely host a World Cup someday – but 2027 may be a tournament too early.
Chance of hosting 2027 World Cup: 10%
If there’s one area of the world that’s still fairly untapped from a rugby point-of-view, it’s the Americas.
After 2019’s tournament, the only continents that will have not hosted a World Cup will be North and South America. Argentina is a top ten nation, but the area where there’s room for real growth is the United States.
By the numbers, the USA actually has more people playing rugby than the likes of Wales and Scotland (of course, USA has a considerably higher population) and various surveys across the country have found rugby to be the fastest growing sport in the nation.
The professional scene in America is still very much under development, with Major League Rugby only into its second season.
All this points to the USA being a hungry, sizeable, untapped market. What better way is there to take advantage of this than by taking the world’s premium rugby competition to the country?
When the United States hosted New Zealand in 2014, over 60,000 rugby fans turned out for the match and over 50,000 were at hand for last year’s USA v Ireland game. Even games without the USA taking part bring in good numbers, with 21,000 attending last year’s exhibition game between South Africa and Wales played in Washington. The USA leg of the Sevens World Series also attracts considerable numbers – more than the tournaments hosted in traditional nations such as South Africa, Australia and Scotland.
Stadium-wise, there are few purpose-built rugby fields in the States that would be sizeable enough for the World Cup – but there are plenty of options available that can be kitted out for a rugby game.
Although games could be hosted all across the country, in all likelihood the competition would be focused primarily on the West Cost, the USA’s rugby hotbed.
In terms of sheer performance, the USA is making steady gains on the rest of the world. Perhaps the nation will never be the top performing side that some make out it would be if it invested more in the sport, but there’s certainly plenty of room for growth.
Chance of hosting 2027 World Cup: 15%
Argentina are the best-performing country to never host a World Cup fixture. They’ve made it to the semi-finals in two of the last three competitions and, although they’ve underperformed in the last few years, are starting to hit form at the right time for 2019’s competition.
As already mentioned, the Americas have never hosted a Rugby World Cup and the Southern Hemisphere are long due a competition, after missing out in 2015, 2019 and 2023.
Basically, now is the perfect time for South America to play host.
Although not as decked out with rugby stadiums as some nations, Argentina still have a range of options available across the country. Salta, Mendoza, Tucumán, Rosario and Buenos Aires have all hosted international rugby matches in recent years. Whilst none of the usual stadiums might be large enough to host a World Cup final, there are football stadiums on offer that could do the trick.
Provided that the infrastructure is available to support the competition, there’s a little argument for not taking the World Cup to Argentina. The biggest concern would be the inaccessibility of the nation. Regardless of where fans are travelling from, they’re likely looking at a minimum travel time of at least 12 hours – which would make a World Cup in Argentina the most difficult to travel to. New Zealand may be far removed from most of the world, but at least they have their Australian neighbours near-by.
Still, lengthy flights in and out of the country shouldn’t infringe on the chances of the tournament being a well-attended success. What fan wouldn’t want to be present for the first ever World Cup in the Americas? With the carnivorous barbecues and South American flair and entertainment ever-present, an Argentinian competition would be a fantastic treat for anyone in the country.
Argentina have never bid for a World Cup. Have they been biding their time for now?
Chance of hosting 2027 World Cup: 30%
South Africa’s attempts at hosting a World Cup won’t make for easy reading for South African fans. After successfully hosting the tournament in 1995, South Africa have now put forward failed bids for the 2011, 2015, 2019 and 2023 competitions.
Argentina may be the least accessible of the potential bidders, but South Africa probably isn’t far off. South Africa is one of the most expensive places to fly to in the world, courtesy of some hefty taxes.
Unfortunately, South Africa is probably also considered the least safe of the various options, which will count against them. For their most recent bid, South Africa intended to host the biggest games in Johannesburg – where Ellis Park and FNB Stadium, the country’s two biggest stadiums, are housed. Given Johannesburg is regularly rated one of the most dangerous cities in South Africa (and, therefore, one of the most dangerous in the world), you can understand why some may have reservations about South Africa hosting the World Cup.
The 2023 bid was also almost curtailed after the South African government banned the union from hosting the tournament due to not providing enough opportunities for black rugby players. The bid may have ultimately been allowed – but a number of voters may well have been thrown off by the continued political turmoil in the country.
Ignoring geographical and political issues, South Africa is obviously one of the most passionate countries in the world when it comes to rugby. The 1995 World Cup was, by all accounts, a raging success and there is little reason to suggest a second World Cup would not do well. The weak rand would make the country affordable for tourists (not so much for the locals) and South Africa have a number of stadiums already suitable for hosting major games.
As mentioned, the Rainbow Nation has put their name forward for countless World Cups and have fallen short every time. No country wants the tournament more than South Africa do – is this enough to sway World Rugby?
Chance of hosting 2027 World Cup: 25%
For one reason or another, Australia have not put their name forward to host a World Cup since the successful 2003 tournament. They will, however, host the 2021 Women’s World Cup.
Given the recent push for the Women’s game, World Rugby will have a keen eye on how successful the 2021 tournament is – and perhaps that competition will be Australia’s springboard to hosting the men’s event once more.
Australia, like the other Southern Hemisphere options, isn’t actually close to the major European market – but that’s going to be the case for any tournaments held south of the equator. The country would hold a large appeal to a number of tourists and has successfully hosted a number of other major sporting competitions since the turn of the century, including the Olympics and two Commonwealth Games. Australia’s lack of proximity to other nations didn’t inhibit crowds for those major events.
Australia have the stadiums and public transport necessary to host a major event such as the Rugby World Cup – so what’s holding them back?
One big factor going against Australia is the public’s current apathy towards the sport. Australia have slid down the world rankings and crowd numbers for test matches (not to mention Super Rugby) have also fallen in recent times. That doesn’t mean Australia couldn’t host an excellent World Cup – their may simply be a perception that there are other nations which would get more excited about hosting it.
The other factor not in Australia’s favour is that the last World Cup hosted in the Southern Hemisphere was located just over the ditch in New Zealand. World Rugby may rightly feel that the competition should be sent outside the Pacific.
Chance of hosting 2027 World Cup: 20%
Rugby is slowly spreading across the globe. 2019’s Rugby World Cup will be the first time that the tournament is hosted by a nation, not in the first tier of the sport and it’s a sign that World Rugby are willing to take a gamble when it comes to picking hosts. 2023 will see the tournament taken to France for the third time and will no doubt significantly bolster World Rugby’s coffers. This extra income should ensure that the next iteration of the tournament is housed outside of Europe and the UK.