Ireland captain George King has voiced his ‘disappointment’ on the men’s 2026 Rugby League World Cup being condensed to just 10 nations.
Last week, it was announced that the 2025 Rugby League World Cup would be delayed by a year and staged in the southern hemisphere after original hosts France pulled out in May, citing a failure to achieve financial guarantees.
There’ll be six nations less in the men’s competition in 2026 than there was last year, with the International Rugby League making the decision to go ahead with a 10-team men’s competition.
‘I’m hugely disappointed’ – Ireland captain on condensed Rugby League World Cup format
The eight quarter-finalists from the men’s 2021 World Cup – Australia, Samoa, England, New Zealand, Lebanon, Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Tonga – will automatically qualify for the 2026 Rugby League World Cup.
As a result, there are just two spots up for grabs at the tournament in 2026, with Ireland captain King believing the downsized World Cup format is a backwards step for the international game.
“I’m hugely disappointed,” King told Love Rugby League ahead of Hull KR’s Challenge Cup final against Leigh Leopards on Saturday.
“Personally, I don’t think it’s the right step forward for the international game.
“I think if you want to improve all the nations, why would you sideline those other nations? It just doesn’t make sense.
“I understand it from a financial perspective because obviously France pulled out and it’s a last-minute thing and obviously you’ve got to bring teams over so I do get it, I get one side and I don’t (at the same time).
“However, I’m not going to speak much negatively on it, I’m just going to think of it as a positive opportunity for Ireland.
“We’ve got an opportunity now in 2025 to hopefully be able to fill that qualification spot to be that ninth or 10th team to get there.”
Ireland’s qualification quest for the next World Cup
The IRL are set to consult member nations to design a qualification framework for the qualification process for RLWC2026.
When asked about Ireland’s qualification quest, King replied: “This is only a guess, I don’t know what the international federation have brought up or suggestions, but I’m guessing there’ll be a qualification spot up for grabs where there’ll be several teams fighting for that spot in a knockout competition.
“I don’t know what it will be but I’m guessing it will be a qualification process in 2025 to qualify for 2026.”
George King says players are keen to put Ireland on the rugby league map
The Wolfhounds won one game at last year’s World Cup, which came against debutants Jamaica, whilst going down to defeats against New Zealand and Lebanon in the group stages.
King was hoping to add to his 13 international caps this autumn, but admitted it looks like next year before Ged Corcoran’s side will be in action again, with a firm eye on qualifying for the next World Cup.
King added: “The way the international has gone at the minute, I was hoping there’d be a few games at the end of the year when we could all come together again.
“However, that’s looking unlikely now, so that would mean the lads can have a full pre-season and start thinking about the processes of 2026 and hopefully qualifying for that in 2025.
“Obviously we are hugely disappointed to not be able to automatically qualify for 2026, that’s our own fault (for not reaching the quarter-finals), as players we take responsibility for that.
“The coaches did their job, the players need to get down to the nitty gritty and put Ireland on the map.”
International Rugby League boss on downsized World Cup format
The new cycle has changed the men’s World Cup, with the next tournament after 2026 set to be held in 2030.
Speaking at the time of the RLWC2026 announcement, IRL chair Troy Grant there will be a ‘greater focus on regional championships and qualifying tournaments’ following the decision to condense the World Cup.
Grant said: “The IRL board has made these decisions to create more compelling content and secure the financial future of the international game.
“The cancellation of France 2025 has given us an opportunity to refresh the structure of the World Cup and associated tournaments as part of a long-term international calendar that all in the game have been desperately seeking.
“The Rugby League World Cup is the pinnacle of our sport and an elite tournament that all nations should aspire to take part in.
“With 10 men’s teams at the 2026 and 2030 World Cups, there will be greater focus on Regional Championships and qualifying tournaments.”