2014 began with thirteen teams confirmed for Rugby World Cup 2015 and before it concludes all twenty nations to compete in the global event will have been confirmed. A total of eighty-four countries were involved in the qualification phase and of them only twenty-three remain in contention for a place at England and Wales 2015.
Four African countries remain in contention for the right to play in Rugby World Cup 2015. The winner of the continental qualification will qualify as Africa 1 after having won Division 1A of the African Cup in 2014. Division 1A is to consist of Kenya, Madagascar, Namibia and Zimbabwe and will take place in Antananarivo between June 26 and July 6. The winner will qualify for the World Cup while the runner-up will be confirmed as Africa 2 and enter repercharge with the possibility of also qualifying for the World Cup as the Play-Off Winner. The two other sides will be eliminated.
Africa 1 will compete in Pool C against Argentina, New Zealand, Tonga and a European qualifier. Of the four teams Namibia has played in two Rugby World Cups for a record of zero wins and fifteen looses while Zimbabwe played in two World Cups for a record of zero wins and six losses.
Prediction: Namibia to qualify as Africa 1, Madagascar to enter repercharge.
The Americas is the only IRB defined region to have had its top qualifier confirmed in the World Cup in 2013. Canada qualified as Americas 1 in August after having defeated the USA in a home and away series. The result sent the USA into a north v south play-off series against the winner of South American qualification, Uruguay. The two match series will be played on March 22 and 29 in Montevideo and Atlanta.
The prize for the winner will be direct qualification to Rugby World Cup 2015 as Americas 2 and a place in Pool B which will consist of and Samoa, Scotland, South Africa and Asia 1. The runner-up will still have a chance of qualifying via repercharge. Americas 3 will advance to repercharge for the right to qualify as the Play-Off Winner.
Prediction: USA to qualify as Americas 2, Uruguay to enter repercharge.
Five Asian countries remain in contention for a place at Rugby World Cup 2015 but all eyes will be on the Japanese. With Japan hosting Rugby World Cup 2019 and having competed at all other World Cups to date it is likely that Japan will qualify as Asia 1 and thus join Americas 2. The qualifier will be the winner of the 2014 Asian Five Nations which will feature Hong Hong, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea and Sri Lanka.
Dates for the tournament are yet to be made official but in previous years the tournament has been contested in April and May. Japan has won every match of every tournament. The battle for second spot is less predictable. In 2010 Kazakhstan was Asia 2 but in 2014 the nation is in a lower division. Instead either Hong Kong or South Korea is likely to be the runner-up up to Japan. Asia 2 will enter reperchage and face Americas 3 for the right to then face the winner of Africa 2 v Europe 3.
Prediction: Japan to qualify as Asia 1, Hong Kong to enter repercharge.
Ten European countries remain in contention for a place at Rugby World Cup 2015. Those still in contention are Belgium, Georgia, Germany, Moldova, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia and Spain. Of them six are half way through the 2013-2014 European Nations Cup with Georgia and Romania currently well placed ahead of Russia in third. Portugal, Spain and Belgium have fewer points but could, in theory, still qualify.
The top two of the 2013-2014 ENC will qualify as Europe 1 and Europe 2 while the bottom three will be eliminated from qualification and the third places side will need to first face a lower division European side and, if successful, then enter repercharge. The Netherlands is still in contention as the winner of division 2A. It will face the winner of division 1B which has Germany, Moldova and Poland still in with a chance of qualifying. The winner of the Netherlands v the division 1B champion will face the third placed ENC side with the winner entering repercharge as Europe 3.
Europe 1 will qualify for pool C while Europe 2 will play in Pool D against Canada, France, Ireland and Italy. Of the six ENC sides five have previously played at Rugby World Cups with Romania having played at every tournament and Georgia at three. Portugal, Russia and Spain have played at one tournament each but are all ranked higher than the leading African side, Namibia. The ENC will be played from February 1 - March 15.
Prediction: Georgia and Romania to qualify as Europe 1 and 2, Russia to enter repercharge.
In Oceania there are only two countries still in the running for a place at the World Cup - Fiji and the Cook Islands. Fiji´s appalling performances at Rugby World Cup 2011 saw it overwhelmed by South Africa and Wales and Fiji also did not impress against either Namibia or Samoa despite defeating the African nation. The Cook Islands is the opponent due to it having earned the right by winning the 2013 FORU Oceania Cup which also featured Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Tahiti.
There is to only be one match with it being hosted by Fiji on June 26. The winner will not only qualify for Rugby World Cup 2015 but will enter the pool of death and be asked to play in the opening match of the tournament against England at Twickenham. If that was not complicated enough Oceania 1 will also have to face Wales at the Millennium Stadium, a venue not located in England. Indeed, Oceania 1 will have to face both nations in the World Cup at their respective home venues. Oceania 1 will also face Australia and the Play-Off Winner.
For the runner-up of Fiji v the Cook Islands it will spell elimination as unlike all other regions there is no place in repercharge for Oceania 2.
Prediction: Fiji to qualify as Oceania 1
Repercharge will feature Africa 2, Americas 3, Asia 2 and Europe 3 and will take place over two stages at yet to be determined dates in 2014. The first phase, likely to be played in July, will see Africa 2 v Europe 3 and Americas 3 v Asia 2 play one-off matches with the highest ranked country hosting the respective fixtures. Round two will then see the winners face-off in home and away matches likely in November.
The winner of the intercontinental play-off series will confirm itself as the twentieth and final participant for the World Cup and will enter Pool A. The prize will be that of facing Australia, England, Oceania 1 and Wales and doing so with complicated dates that will require compromises. The Play-Off Winner will face Oceania 1 and England with only a three day turn-around.
Prediction: Uruguay to qualify as the Play-Off Winner.