Photo Credit Davey Wilson

The International Rugby League (IRL) is still copping reaction to its planned changes to qualification for Rugby League World Cups and IRL membership a little more than two months since the board initially announced those changes.

A new World Series concept will be introduced in 2025 to determine the final two men’s berths for #RLWC2026, alongside the quarterfinalists from last year’s World Cup – Australia, Samoa, New Zealand, England, Lebanon, Tonga, Fiji and Papua New Guinea.

The World Series will be contested by one team from each of the IRL’s four regions – Cook Islands (as the sole eligible Asia-Pacific nation) and the winners of the Americas, European and Middle East-Africa (MEA) qualifying tournaments.

IRL chair Troy Grant said the top two teams at the World Series will qualify for #RLWC2026.

“The regional qualifiers and World Series construct is key for the longer term, so that we have genuine engaged pathways for all nations to realize their ambitions,” he said.

This change was brought about by France’s sudden decision in May to pull out as host of #RLWC2025, a move that prompted the IRL to push the event back a year to 2026.

If the 2025 World Cup had gone ahead as planned, it would have been the first time that two seeds from the Americas would have qualified, but in light of the French decision, the IRL board has come up with the World Series option which now means that the Americas will have only one team at best making it to the World Cup.

They also run the risk of having no team there at all if they lose in the first round of the World Series and that has Canada Rugby League Association (CRLA) president John Cameron asking some questions.

“Ideally, we would like a larger RLWC and more opportunities to qualify, but we are making the most of the situation,” he tells Rugby League Planet.

“Could there have been a few more ways to qualify for the additional teams? Probably. But will we make the best of the chance in front of us? Yes, and we’ll give the current board the benefit of the doubt to deliver in 2026.

“My biggest hope is that the contracted model is an economic success in 2026 and that allows for a larger World Cup the next time.”

The IRL board has also decided that only full member countries will be eligible to qualify for the men’s #RLWC2026 and that March 31, 2024, will be the cutoff point.

That means that if a country is not eligible for full membership by the end of next March, they can kiss their chances of qualifying for #RLWC2026 goodbye.

“We feel the IRL has taken some of our group’s feedback and there is a path, albeit narrow, for our men and women to qualify whether through full membership or on the field,” Cameron continues.

“Do we still feel that apart from economically the game needs to evolve from a governance perspective? Yes, and we hope that is forthcoming.

“I think the biggest outlier right now is the youth game. We need to set it up sustainably so it’s not a one-off.

“Masters has been doing well and it has kind of given us a model of how we want to go about youth. We’ll focus on a geographic aspect, whether that’ll be Ontario and BC, and leverage our existing Wolverines and coaches who have connections at schools.

“We see the school route as being the most sustainable for us on a long-term basis. But again, it has to be steppingstones. We’ve got our checklists and the ERL and IRL have been very responsive.

“We’ve had promises and assurances that after 2026 there will be investment in growing in these developing rugby league nations and I think that commitment really needs to be held to and if we don’t see that then I will be disappointed. And if we don’t also start to see some change in terms of the overall structure of how the IRL is governed then I think a lot of the developing nations will be disappointed.”

Canada isn’t the only Americas region country to comment on the IRL’s changes as the United States and Brazil have done likewise.

US Association of Rugby League (USARL) Inc. interim chair Drew Slover told this masthead that getting to the point of being able to apply to become a full member in less than six months is a pretty tight time frame.

“We’re working on it,” he said. “It’s a chicken and the egg thing to me. You’ve got to develop and to develop you need money and unlike many other countries, we’re not in the situation where we get funding from our country.”

And the Brazilians made their feelings known about the changes quite candidly via derogatory posts on social media as well as a personal attack against IRL boss Troy Grant. They have since deleted all those comments.

Brian is a strong and effective communicator with more than 30 years’ experience in broadcast and electronic media. He has been writing for Rugby League Planet since 2012 and is frequently the first reporter to break news stories about the sport. He has been our North American correspondent reporting on news in the US, Canada and Jamaica covering everything from league standings to strategy analysis to breaking news on key trades to editorials and colourful features on athletes. He is now writing about rugby league on a broader scale to cover developments around the globe. An accomplished storyteller, Brian started his career in Australian radio, before moving to the United States. He is an experienced podcast host and producer and is also a successful TV commentator having done play-by-play and analysis for ESPN, FOX Sports and the Rugby League European Federation (RLEF) among others. Brian has his own YouTube channel @brianlowe5567 where he posts his interviews for Rugby League Planet. Be sure to check it out and subscribe.