New Competition Format a Stark Reminder of Power Imbalances in World Rugby

"As a Samoan Rugby player I am deeply frustrated and disappointed by the recent World Council decision to exclude smaller nations like Samoa and Tonga from the upcoming Nations Championship. This move not only hinders our progress but undermines the spirit of inclusivity that rugby is supposed to stand for..."

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27 October 2023, Global Samoans. Samoa’s fly half and former All Black Lima Sopoaga says the announcement of a new non-inclusive National Championship competition of 12 teams, “is a stark reminder of the power imbalances that exists in World Rugby”.

The World Rugby Council whose governance structure allows three votes for larger nations and one vote for smaller countries like Samoa, have decided on a new competition format that keeps the Tier 1 nations together, while Tier 2 rugby nations continue to have no exposure to high level competition by playing in their own second level tournament.

“This decision privileges the interests of the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship, and it’s disheartening to see those interests hold more sway than the dreams and aspirations of smaller nations,” writes Lima Sopoaga in a social media post that joins many others from Tier 2 nations airing their frustrations.

The new men’s competition brings together the Six Nations sides (England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland, and Wales) to play against the Southern Hemisphere’s Rugby Championship sides (Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) – plus two additional teams invited by Sanzaar, expected to be Fiji and Japan.

They will meet in the usual July and November test windows every two years from 2026.

A second division of 12 teams – yet to be determined – run by World Rugby will start in 2026. To add salt to the wound, it is announced that promotion and relegation from this second division to the top guns competition won’t happen until 2030!

To throw crumbs at the Pacific Island teams, the World Rugby have also announced that the annual Pacific Nations Cup will expand again next year to include Japan, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, the United States and Canada. The last time all six featured was in 2019, and before that in 2015.

South America’s Rugby President Sebastian Pineyrua says they turned down the invitation to join the Pacific Nations Cup because they believe the competition’s value will diminish again when its two top teams leave for the new Nations Championship in 2026. Pineyrua had warned before the vote that the new format would be “the death of rugby”.

For years now, all of the Tier 2 nations have been begging for more matches with Tier 1 teams from the Six Nations and Rugby Championship to increase their competitiveness and level the playing field at Rugby World Cup events.

But despite their pleas, World Rugby’s Chairman Bill Beaumont has described the decision to run two separate competitions as “an historic moment for our sport that sets us up collectively for success.”

The World Rugby Council needed a 75% majority of votes or 39 votes to pass the new format and they just scraped through with 41 votes according to former Manu Samoa centre Fuimaono Eliota Sapolu.

“The irony is that Samoa apparently voted for the competition,” says Eliota Sapolu on a social media tik tok that has gone viral.

“So we have Lima Sopoaga out there against it, and fighting for Manu Samoa’s inclusion in these competitions, while the Council member with the vote is voting for Samoa’s exclusion from these compeitions,” says Fuimaono.

“This is the kind of mess that Samoa rugby is.. you go out there and fight World Rugby, and then you gotta go fight your own Union..”

Sopoaga’s heartfelt Instagram post that highlights the decision as a “slap in the face” for smaller nations who face constant challenges to compete at the global stage, has been picked up by all major media outlets around the globe.

“This exclusion not only impacts our chances of improvement but also affects the young talents in our nations who aspire to be the next great rugby players,” writes Sopoaga.

“It sends a discouraging message that their dreams are not as important as those of larger nations. It’s a betrayal of the very essence of rugby, which should be about respect, inclusion, and fair play..

“We are not asking for charity. We are just asking for an equal chance to compete, to prove our worth on the field, and to deveop the sport in our nations.”

Sopoaga says that while the decision to exclude Samoa and smaller nations may be finalised, the frustration and anger that it has ignited in the hearts of Samoan rugby players and fans will not easily subside.

“We will continue to fight for our place in the global rugby community, and we hope that one day, the world will recognise the value of giving smaller nations the opportunity to shine on the rugby field.”

“Until then, we remain determined and steadfast, ready to prove ourselves whenever we get the chance.”

“Rugby is in our blood, and no decision can extinguish that fire.”


Daniel M Limā