irb.com and James Mortimer 22.Dec.2013Getty Images
It was fitting that North America provided the first direct qualifier as 17 months earlier the road to RWC 2015 had kicked off in the region when Mexico hosted Jamaica in the NACRA Caribbean Championship. Eighty other nations had since entered the process and nearly 150 matches been played before Canada took the honour as the first qualifier.
Canada had enjoyed the perfect start in their first match against the Eagles after Phil Mack touched down inside 30 seconds and the 27-9 victory in Charleston ensured they went into the second leg on home soil in the driving seat with an 18-point advantage. Seven days later in Toronto, the Eagles spent much of the early exchanges camped in the Canadian 22 but were unable to turn pressure into points and ultimately lost 13-11.
“It is an amazing feeling to know that we will be there proudly representing Canada at Rugby World Cup 2015,” admitted captain Aaron Carpenter. “It caps an incredible year with more Test matches and Pacific Nations Cup inclusion and I am sure it will boost Rugby interest here. I am really proud of the guys.”
The RWC dream is not over for USA as they now face a home and away play-off against Uruguay in March 2014 to determine the Americas 2 qualifier, who will slot into Pool B with South Africa, Samoa, Scotland and the Asia 1 qualifier. The Eagles took this route to New Zealand 2011 with Uruguay going into the Répechage and ultimately falling at the final hurdle to Romania.
The next qualifiers to emerge will be Europe 1 and 2 in March after the culmination of the top tier of the European Nations Cup 2014 involving Georgia, Romania, Russia, Portugal, Spain and Belgium, but see the whole process unfold on www.rugbyworldcup.com.
Namibia kept alive hopes of a fifth successive Rugby World Cup appearance by beating Tunisia 45-13 in the Africa Cup Division 1B final at the Stade Iba Mar Diop in Dakar, securing promotion to the top tier for 2014 when the Africa 1 qualifier will be decider.
Standing between the Welwitschias and a place alongside defending champions New Zealand, Argentina, Tonga and the Europe 1 qualifier in Pool C at England 2015 are now African champions Kenya, Zimbabwe – who graced the RWC stage in 1991 – and Madagascar, the side that beat them 57-54 in last year’s Division 1B final.
Forty-thousand people again packed into Mahamasina Stadium in Antananarivo in July to cheer Madagascar to a 48-32 win over Uganda which guaranteed their Division 1A status for a second year. In the final, Kenya came from behind with tries in the last 25 minutes from Edwin Otieno and Nick Barasa to beat tournament favourites Zimbabwe 29-17.
“It will be a thrilling competition and I can’t wait to see who books their place at Rugby World Cup 2015 to fly the flag for Africa alongside South Africa,” admitted Confédération Africaine de Rugby chairman Abdelaziz Bougja.
The RWC dream will not end for the Africa Cup runner-up in 2014 as they will enter the Répechage and face the European representative.
Chile and Uruguay took their first steps on the road to England in 2013 when they faced Brazil and the already qualified Argentina in the South American Championship. The crucial match in the round robin was always expected to be the final day showdown between hosts Uruguay and Chile in Montevideo and so it proved after both beat Brazil and lost to Argentina.
A vociferous 5,000 strong crowd packed into Charrúa Stadium, the new home of Uruguayan rugby, to cheer on Los Teros against their traditional rivals on 4 May, but with so much at stake it proved an error-strewn affair with both teams too nervous to be adventurous. Uruguay’s strength in the scrum ultimately proved decisive and they scored the only tries, through Alberto Román and captain Nicolás Klappenbach, in the 23-9 win that kept their RWC 2015 dreams alive. Uruguay last qualified for a Rugby World Cup in 2003 under the coaching of Diego Ormaechea and his two sons – Juan and Agustín – played their part in Los Teros’ victory over Chile with the latter kicking 13 points.
Uruguay had to wait a couple of months to learn who their opponents would be in the play-off for the Americas 2 spot, but now find the Eagles standing in their way again after suffering back-to-back losses to neighbours Canada in the penultimate stage of qualifying in the region.
Four years ago, the Eagles had won the first leg of their series with Canada before being blown away in the second leg. This time around at the same Blackbaud Stadium, tries from Mack, Harry Jones and DTH van der Merwe, together with the boot of James Pritchard, ensured Canada had the first leg advantage. There was to be no way back from an 18-point deficit and tries from Pritchard and Jason Marshall cancelled out Takudzwa Ngwenya’s score for the Eagles to ensure it was the Canada’s celebrating come the final whistle.
RWC 2019 hosts Japan will be favourites to claim the Asia 1 berth and remain the continent’s only side to play on the Rugby World Cup stage by winning what would be a seventh successive HSBC Asian 5 Nations title in 2014. The Brave Blossoms have won all 24 matches they have played in the Top 5 with a bonus point and in 2013 scored 316 points and conceded just eight, so few would bet against Japan joining South Africa, Samoa, Scotland and the Americas 2 qualifier in Pool B at England 2015.
Japan had begun their title defence in ruthless fashion against Top 5 debutants the Philippines in rain-hit Fukuoka in late April with 13 players scoring their 18 tries. There was no let up by Eddie Jones’ men with victories following over Hong Kong (38-0), Korea (64-5) and UAE (93-3).
Korea would finish runners-up after beating Hong Kong 43-22, fly half Youn Hyung Oh crossing for a hat-trick in Ansan. A repeat of this placing in 2014 will see Korea enter the Répechage and face either USA or Uruguay in the initial round.
Hong Kong, the Philippines and Division I winners Sri Lanka will join Japan and Korea in the Top 5 competition in 2014. Sri Lanka had impressively earned promotion back to Asia’s top tier in early April with victories over Chinese Taipei (39-8), Thailand (45-7) and top seeds Kazakhstan (49-18) in front of their rugby-loving president Mahinda Rajapaksa – who was watching his two sons play for the national team – in Colombo.
Thirty-one nations have been involved in the European qualifying process, although only those in Division 1A – Georgia, Romania, Russia, Portugal, Spain and Belgium – of the European Nations Cup 2014 are in the mix for the Europe 1 and 2 direct places. Defending champions Georgia and Romania currently sit in those positions after going through the first half of the competition spanning two years unbeaten, their encounter in Bucharest in March ending in a 9-9 stalemate.
Russia are only five points adrift in third, a position which were the Bears to still occupy come the end of the competition in March 2014 then they would find themselves in a play-off with another European side for the right to progress to the Répechage. That side will be known after four play-off matches involving sides from the lower divisions of the European Nations Cup.
The first saw Luxembourg, the Division 2C winners in 2012/13, make the most of home advantage to overcome Division 2D representatives Slovenia 22-10 in May. They then welcomed Division 2B winners Israel to the Stade Josy Barthel but lost 26-12 in October, earning the Israelis a meeting with Division 2A winners the Netherlands a few weeks later. The Dutch, though, were convincing 52-8 winners and now must wait until April to discover the identity of their next opponent, the Division 1B winner. The matches in Division 1B, along with the top tier, will continue to double as RWC 2015 qualifiers in 2013/14 with Germany currently occupying top spot, although Poland and Moldova are still in contention to earn that play-off opportunity.
Papua New Guinea was the venue as the last regional qualification process kicked off in July 2013 with the hosts taking on Cook Islands, Solomon Islands and Tahiti in the 2013 Oceania Cup. The winner would face Fiji in a one-off match in 2014 to determine the Oceania 1 qualifier, who will join hosts England, Australia, Wales and the Répechage winner in Pool A at RWC 2015.
The title decider was the match between Papua New Guinea and the Cook Islands on the final day, the latter winning a thrilling match 37-31 before a crowd of more than 7,000 in Port Moresby. The Cook Islands fought back from 12-3 down at one stage to lead 29-12 but four tries in the last quarter by their hosts ensured a nervous finale.