The 2021 Rugby League World Cup has a lot to do to follow in the footsteps of the 2017 tournament. The general buzz and excitement following this year's competition can be the catalyst to make the 2021 World Cup the best one yet. Already, there is information pouring out about what will change or be done differently at the next tournament and one of the major differences will be that 16, not 14, teams will qualify to play in it. But, there is currently some debate over which two teams will complete the line-up and who is the best candidate for the job.

Tournament background

The 2021 World Cup will run concurrently with eight-team Women's and Wheelchair World Cups whilst games will be spread across the week and not just played at weekends as they were at the #RLWC2017. This is perhaps a good move by planners as it can keep the momentum and interest of the tournament high throughout the week, rather than the tournament largely being put to one side until the weekend.

Not only will the number of teams increase, but so will the maximum number of venues permitted by the Rugby League International Federation (RLIF) to stage matches. 14, rather than 12, stadia will play host to matches, whilst 80% of matches are expected to be played in the code's northern heartlands with Hull, Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester almost certain to be among the host cities, although some games will be staged in London as well.

France have also expressed their interest in hosting some games, but this is another debate for the future as Les Chanticleers still need to qualify after failing to advance beyond the group stages at this year's World Cup.

Why the change?

Teams outside of those 14 that competed in this year's tournament have been offered a lifeline by the increase.

The RLIF have perhaps looked at how controversial the grouping system was this year as just the top side progressed through a group of three in both Group C and D - which saw Ireland leave early despite impressing - whilst three sides from Group A and D made the quarter-finals. Expanding the number of sides means four groups of four and, thus, two to progress from each group.

The four groups of four also means that inter-group matches will no longer be a concept; the six sides in Group C and D had to play another nation from the other group in the 2017 competition which rather made a farce of the whole grouping anyway. In 2021, countries will simply play sides in their own group, resulting in a straightforward round of fixtures.

Potential candidates

Eight teams have already qualified - England, Australia, Fiji, Lebanon, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa and Tonga after making it out of the group stages, whilst those that failed to make it to the quarter-finals - France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland, USA and Wales - are expected to qualify once more. 14 spaces are thus almost guaranteed to be taken before qualifying even begins - all six of the Asia-Pacific spots are already taken up by this year's quarter-finalists whilst six of the European spots and one of the Americas spots are very likely to be filled by those at this year's tournament.

However, with two extra spaces it means that two other teams are in with a chance of making the World Cup for, what would be the majority of nations, the first time. This means that another team from the Americas will be present in 2021 as well as another nation from anywhere in the world courtesy of an inter-continental play-off.

Some of those nations in with a shout have come on in leaps and bounds in recent years with regards to developing their national side on and off the field, and, for some it would be just reward for the mountain of effort they have put in over the past decade or so.


The second team from the Americas will likely be either Canada or Jamaica. Qualification for the 2017 tournament saw the USA top a group consisting of these three nations after beating both Canada and Jamaica, whilst the latter two countries played out a thrilling 18-18 draw to finish the group with a point each - although Jamaica finished above Canada on points difference.

In view of he 2021 World Cup however, Canada look to be making all the right noises. Toronto Wolfpack made great strides in 2017, winning promotion to the British Championship after coasting through League One. And, with the interest quite obvious in such a large city - attendances were regularly above the 6,500 mark - it can only benefit the national side. With the Wolfpack making waves, participation and interest are increasing and, by 2021, Canada may well have a much stronger side than they do at the moment.

The Canadian squad that took part in qualification at the end of 2015 for this year's World Cup featured 14 players out of a 20-man squad that played their rugby for Canadian sides. If Canadian sides can take advantage of the Wolfpack's momentum, the national side could well find themselves in England for the 2021 competition.


The other side from the Americas that could have qualified for the 2017 World Cup and whom will be looking to go one better in 2021, are Jamaica. The 20-man squad for qualification featured players from seven English sides, one French and five native Jamaican teams. And, a narrow 20-14 loss to eventual group winners the USA demonstrates just how close the Reggae Warriors came to causing an upset and taking the sole place on offer for this year's World Cup.

Formed merely 13 years ago, the Jamaican Rugby League Federation has made seriously impressive inroads in the past few years. In 2005 a domestic competition was formed featuring four teams (Duhaney Park Sharks, Vauxhall Vultures, Jamaica Defence Force and Olympic Angels), whilst an inter-collegiate competition was launched in 2010 which now features six Universities and Colleges (University of the West Indies, University of Technology, Mico University College, Portmore Community College, GC Foster College and Excelsior Community College).

Jamaica are making domestic inroads and, with a thriving junior program alongside ever-increasing primary school and high school participation, the small island nation could be a force to be reckoned with ahead of the 2021 tournament. Ranked 15th in the world - two places ahead of rivals Canada - a place at the 2021 World Cup is perhaps waiting for them.

South Africa

Diverting away from the Americas, there remains just one spot left for a team that qualifies through an inter-continental play-off. Die renosters (The Rhinos) missed out on qualification for the 2017 tournament after falling to two heavy defeats to Lebanon in the Middle East-Africa play-off in October 2015. Though South Africa were thrashed 40-12 and 50-16, they are still the second strongest team in the Middle East-Africa area and, if Lebanon had not raided a number of high-profile Australian clubs for a number of their squad such as hooker Robbie Farah and exciting talent Mitchell Moses, South Africa could well have been on their way to Australia for the recent World Cup.

The African nation will be looking to go one better in 2021.


Serbia are making great progress on a domestic level; ever since the Serbian Rugby League Federation was created in 2001 and the Serbian Rugby League Championship in 2002, the sport has took off on an unprecedented level. From just four domestic sides competing in the Championship in 2002, there are now 17. Though Dorćol have been utterly dominant in the Championship over the past decade or so, other sides have begun to make their mark. Partizan Belgrade and Red Star Belgrade have burst onto the scene in recent years with the latter winning the Championship title in 2014 and 2017 and the former winning the Balkan Super League title this year.

But, directors behind the scene are definitely not stopping there. They want international success; one director at Red Star Belgrade, Colin Kleyweg, is aiming high: he wants to join the RFL structure over a five-year development period and is determined to improve the structures and opportunities for Serbians playing the sport in the nation itself.

Internationally, Serbia's qualifying record has been poor; having failed to qualify for the 2008, 2013 and 2017 World Cups - in qualification for the latter, Serbia were demolished 50-0 by Wales and then 62-14 by Italy - the signs do not look great. But, they are making massive strides; they thrashed Greece in the final to register their first Balkans Cup triumph in 2017 and are European Shield holders, whilst a number of Serbian nationals are also dotted around the NRL.

The likes of brothers Tom and Jake Trbojevic, Tom Opacic and Nick Cotric are doing well Down Under and are making a name for themselves as born-and-bred Serbians. And, if Serbian Rugby League continues to develop as it has done in recent years, many more will follow. Serbia, by 2021, if all goes to plan, could well be a surprise contender for qualification.


Russia have always been a "nearly" side in Rugby League. For example, they qualified for the 2000 World Cup, but suffered huge defeats to England - 76-4 - and Australia - 110-4 - whilst also going down 38-12 to Fiji. And, they were close to obtaining a place at the 2017 tournament after a 40-6 victory over Spain led them into a qualifying play-off with Italy.

Yet a 76-0 hammering quelled any hopes of appearing at their second World Cup.

Russia just can't seem to get it together when it really matters, though they are not one of the worst mainland European sides - having had two European Shield triumphs (in 2010 and 2012/13) and just missing out on qualification for the 2017 World Cup - they are very disappointing when opposition sides are of a stronger class. 2021 qualification could therefore be just another round of disappointment for the Bears, but, if they finally click as so often has been promised in the past, Russia have an outside shot of being in England in 2021.

Cook Islands

Having just narrowly missed out on qualification to the 2017 World Cup after a 28-8 defeat to Tonga in the Asia-Pacific play-off, Cook Islands will be aiming to go one better for the 2021 tournament.

Since the national side's creation back in 1986, the island nation has competed in two World Cups, one in 2000 and the other in 2013. Though they had never won a World Cup game before the 2013 tournament and though they lost their first two group games against USA and Tonga, the Cook Islands made history by beating Wales in their final group game. A strong contender and unlucky to miss out in 2017, Cook Islands have a squad full of NRL and Championship stars that could give them the springboard they need to qualify.