How does the pooling system work during the Rugby World Cup? We take a look in this piece.

Rugby World Cup Pools Explained

The 2019 Rugby World Cup will be the ninth edition of the tournament and once again the usual pool or group system will be used for the opening rounds of matches. However over the years there have been subtle differences in the way the pools have operated, so to explain those Adam Hathaway has gone back through the years addressing each of them. We start of course in 1987.

1987 in Australia and New Zealand

Back in the day when the World Cup started, in 1987, there were four pools of four teams and the top two in each group went through to the quarter-finals with the winner of pool one playing the runner-up in pool two and so on.

So far so simple. It was the first tournament so there was no qualifying, it was all a bit on-the-hoof and countries were invited to participate by the International Rugby Board, now World Rugby. The seven members of the IRB, plus Argentina, Fiji, Italy, Canada, Tonga, Romania, USA, Zimbabwe and Japan were all there. South Africa were banned because of the apartheid policy.

1991 in England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France

In 1991, with games all over the place, the eight quarter-finalists from 1987 qualified automatically with 25 countries involved in play-offs for the last eight spots. Western Samoa got through, replacing Tonga from the line-up four years previously.

Teams got three points for a win, two for a draw and one for turning up in the pool matches, a change from 1987 when the spread was 2,1 and 0.

Winning Hosts: South Africa went on to win the 1995 tournament as hosts (Getty Images)

1995 in South Africa

Again there were four pools of four teams and again the quarter-finalists from 1991 qualified automatically as did South Africa as hosts. Qualifiers were done by regions – Africa, Oceania, Europe, the Americas and Asia – with Ivory Coast, Japan, Argentina, Wales, Italy, Romania and Tonga getting through to the tournament.

Groups were seeded with the eight quarter-finalists from 1991 taking the top two spots in each so Australia (winners) were top seeds in Pool A, England (runners-up) in Pool B, New Zealand (3rd in 1991) in Pool C and Scotland (4th in 1991) in Pool D.

Second seeds were the quarter-finalists from 1991 – Canada, Western Samoa, Ireland and France – and South Africa went into Pool A as hosts.

Wales, famously beaten by Samoa in 1991, had to do a grand tour of Europe in order to qualify. They beat Spain and Portugal in the spring of 1994 to win their zone, while Romania and Italy qualified from their zones. These three local winners then played off in the autumn of 1994 for seeding positions: Wales finished top (to go in to Pool C in South Africa), Italy runners-up (to Pool B) with Romania third (to Pool A). Similar structures were used to determine the seedings and pools for the other four qualifiers: Argentina (to Pool B), Japan (Pool C), and Tonga and Ivory Coast (Pool D).

1999 in WalesEngland, FranceScotland, Ireland 

Four teams qualified automatically, Wales as main hosts plus the top three from 1995, namely South Africa, New Zealand and France.

The tournament was expanded to 20 teams and the remaining 16 places were fought over by 63 countries in a series of qualifiers to give five pools of four. This presented a problem for organisers.

The five pool winners made the quarter-finals and the five pool runners-up and the best third-placed team went into qualifiers for the quarter-finals. These were played midweek ahead of the last eight games putting teams in the play-offs at a disadvantage.

England beat Fiji 45-24 but lost to South Africa in the last eight; Scotland beat Samoa and were then knocked out by New Zealand; Argentina shocked Ireland 28-24 but were then beaten by France.

Hot Favourites: Despite getting drawn alongside South Africa in the group stages, Woodward’s England went on to win in 2003 (Getty Images)

2003 in Australia

The play-offs were ditched as the 20 teams were housed in four pools of five with the top two qualifying for the quarter-finals and the groups were seeded, again, on the basis of previous World Cup performances. As per usual the quarter-finalists from 1999 were straight through but 81 nations fought for the next remaining 12 spots with qualification starting in September 2000 when Luxembourg beat Norway 41-9.

Bonus points were used for the first time in the World Cup pools and teams got four points for a win, two for a draw and bonus points for scoring four or more tries or losing by seven points or fewer.

2007 in France

Similar to 2003 with the eight quarter-finalists from 2003 through automatically and 12 nations qualifying through regional tournaments. Portugal were the new boys and pools were livened up by the fact that teams finishing third automatically qualified for the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand.

A First: World rankings were used in the 2011 tournament to decide the seeds (Getty Images)

2011 in New Zealand

Four pools of five again but crucially this was the first time world rankings were used to seed teams in the pools. The cut-off point was 1 December 2008 meaning the top four seeds were New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and Argentina. So South Africa, England and France were not top seeds despite their performances four years earlier.

Twelve teams qualified automatically by finishing in the top three of their pool at the 2007 World Cup and Russia made their debut.

2015 in England

A similar format to 2011, with the top three in each pool gaining automatic entry to the 2019 tournament, and a group of death. All World Cups should have a group of death and England found themselves in one as they were pooled with Wales, Australia, Uruguay and Fiji.

At the time of the draw, three years before the World Cup, England were ranked 5th in the world, Australia 3rd and crucially Wales 9th meaning they were in the third pot of teams. By the time the tournament started England were ranked 4th, Australia 2nd and Wales 5th and we all know what happened next.

Original Groups: The 2019 pools before all qualifiers had been finalised (Getty Images)

2019 in Japan

Stung by criticism of the early draw for the 2015 tournament World Rugby left it until 10 May 2017  to pick the pools for this year’s tournament in Japan. That meant the autumn internationals in 2016 had an influence and the seeding system from 2015 was kept with 12 automatic qualifiers being put in bands according to their world rankings. A series of qualifiers got Namibia, USA, Russia, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Uruguay and Canada through.

The draw held in Kyoto worked like this.

Band 1: Four highest ranked teams, Band 2: Next four highest ranked; Band 3: Last four automatic qualifiers; Band 4: Qualifiers from Oceania 1, Americas 1, Europe 1, Africa 1; Band 5: Oceania 2, Americas 2, Play-off winner, Repechage winner.

Follow our Rugby World Cup homepage which we update regularly with news and features. Also make sure you know about the GroupsWarm-upsDatesFixturesVenuesTV Coverage, and Qualified Teams by clicking on the highlighted links.

Finally, don’t forget to follow Rugby World on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.