It's a long way to the top
July 20, 2009
Qualifying for the 2011 World Cup began in the Caribbean © Getty Images
With their recent qualifying victories Canada and Samoa have become the latest teams to be inked on to the fixture list for the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand.
Rugby's next global gathering is still over two years away, but in the lower echelons of the world game the competition for places at the top table has already been fierce.
The qualifying process began at the last World Cup in France in 2007, with the top three sides from each pool qualifying by right for the next tournament. This measure was kind to Ireland, Wales, Italy and Tonga, all of whom qualified as the third placed side in their groups.
Joining them in the hat are winners South Africa, runners-up England, semi-finalists France and Argentina and losing quarter-finalists Fiji, Scotland, Australia and New Zealand.
While the big boys have been safely tucked up at night dreaming of glory in the Land of the Long White Cloud, the so-called 'minnows' of the world game have been scrapping for their own slice of the World Cup pie.
Qualification for the tournament takes a circuitous route, with sides needing to win a myriad of games in order to progress. Qualifying began in earnest in April 2008, when the Americas leg kicked off with the Caribbean Championship in Grand Cayman. Competing teams, including Mexico, Barbados, Jamaica and eventual winners Trinidad and Tobago slugged it out for the right to play Brazil, winners of the South American Division B.
The Brazilians saw off their Caribbean counterparts before they themselves, along with Chile, fell in tournament play to Uruguay. The Uruguayans now face the USA for their place in the finals, the US getting one more shot to qualify alongside Canada as Americas Two after they lost out to the Canucks on aggregate in their qualifiers - entering a pool alongside Australia, Ireland and Italy should they be successful.
Joining the USA or Uruguay in that pool will be Europe Two - the side that finishes second in the European Nations Cup Division One. Russia currently hold that position in the two-year tournament, set to be concluded in April 2010, with Georgia topping the table and looking to secure the other automatic place.
Portugal sit third in the table, ahead of Romania, Spain and Germany, and should they stay there they will have a chance of qualifying thanks to a play-off against the eventual winner of a series of games between the winners and runners up from Divisions Two and Three of the Nations Cup. Division Two leaders Ukraine and Netherlands and Division Three table-toppers Lithuania and Slovenia are currently in line for these qualifiers.
The winners of the European play-off will proceed to face the loser of the African qualifying competition for a shot at the final place play-off.
African qualifying has also been underway since mid-2008, with 14 teams having entered the competition. Following an opening round of qualifying the sides fought out the four-pool Africa Cup - with the pool winners advancing to the semi-finals. Uganda will face Tunisia and the Ivory Coast face off against Namibia in the last four in November, the overall winners advancing as Africa One to a pool including South Africa, Wales, Fiji and Samoa - who booked their place at the tournament with a massive 188-19 aggregate win over Papua New Guinea in July.
In Asia, qualifying is decided through the 2010 Asian Five Nations, with Japan the overwhelming favourites to pick up their place in pool one alongside New Zealand, France, Tonga and Canada. Their competition comes from Korea, Hong Kong, Kazakhstan and Singapore.
The runners-up head to the final-place play-off mix, meeting the losers of the USA v Uruguay Test.
Pools for the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand:
Pool A - New Zealand, France, Tonga, Canada, Asia One
Teams in line to qualify:
Asia One - Winner of the Asian Five Nations
Huw Richards assesses where Wales are after a mixed Six Nations, with front row seats still very much available for the World Cup
John Mitchell lapped up the action on 'Sensational Saturday' - but warns not to expect a repeat come Rugby World Cup time later this year
Craig Dowd warns England, Ireland and Wales they should play to their strengths rather than those of the All Blacks and the Wallabies
Tom Hamilton runs the rule over just where the six countries stand ahead of the global gathering in September