Exclusive: 16 countries hit out at reduced 2026 World Cup format with official letter sent to international rugby league

Josh McAllister

RLWC Trophy before the 2021 Rugby League World Cup Semi Final match between Australia and New Zealand at Elland Road, Leeds. Credit: MI News & Sport /Alamy Live News.

At least 16 countries have signed a letter written to International Rugby League expressing their disappointment over the reduced World Cup plans for 2026.

The competition was set to be held in France 2025, before the country pulled out due to financial difficulties.

The decision to withdraw left the next World Cup in doubt, but the IRL have since confirmed that the tournament will be pushed back 12 months and staged in the Southern Hemisphere, with further details to be announced.

Due to the rescheduling, the Men’s competition will now only feature 10 teams – with the eight quarter-finalists confirmed – Australia, Samoa, England, New Zealand, Lebanon, Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Tonga – leaving just two vacant spots.

The new RLWC2026 will also include eight-team Women’s and Wheelchair World Cups.

The IRL will consult with member nations to design qualification framework for the remaining World Cup spots, but many non-members have hit out at the decision and expressed their frustrations.

Official letter sent to international governing body

In a letter sent to the IRL, nations have raised their concerns over the ‘profound ramifications’ the decisions will have on the development of the game globally.

Additionally, the letter also confirms that the changes were made by the IRL Board without the consultation of the vast majority of its members, despite dramatically impacting many of their organisations and athletes.

Only full members will be eligible to qualify for the remaining two spots in the Men’s World Cup, ruling out the likes of Greece, who made their debuts at last year’s tournament in England in a fairytale story.


Only 10 teams meet that criteria, with the likes of USA, Germany and Spain all non-full members. It means Josh Drinkwater’s hopes of playing alongside brother Scott in the qualifications for Germany have been left shattered.

Timelines for full membership requirements are also unknown, leading to further uncertainty ahead of the next tournament.

Many nations highlight the hopes and dreams of qualifying for a World Cup as a major part in driving the game in their areas, which has now been impacted by the new regulations.

The letter asks for the remaining Men’s spots to be open to all with regional qualifiers, while it also states that some nations do not feel represented by the IRL.

The IRL has been contacted by Love Rugby League for a response.

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