World Rugby launches investigation into RWC 2019 qualification process following ineligibility reports
Investigation launched into World Cup qualification in Europe
The saga surrounding Rugby World Cup 2019 qualification, and Spain in particular, has taken another twist.
Having received a report from Rugby Europe on the Belgium v Spain match last month that centred on the appointment of Romanian officials for a key match in qualifying, World Rugby’s Executive Committee felt a replay “would be in the best interests of the game”.
However, in light of reports of several players representing countries when they were ineligible to do so, World Rugby have convened an emergency committee to investigate whether there have been any breaches of Regulation 8 before determining what the next steps will be.
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Spain’s defeat by Belgium saw Romania qualify automatically for Japan 2019, but with Romanian officials in charge in Brussels – something Spain raised concerns about before the fixture – World Rugby deemed it was a serious enough incident for the match to be replayed. If Spain had beaten Belgium, they would have qualified automatically as Europe 1.
World Rugby’s statement said their concerns specifically related “to the process and perception of Rugby Europe’s appointment of a match official team that was not neutral in the context of qualification and failing to act on Spain’s concerns in respect of the appointment”.
Since the match there have been various reports of teams fielding ineligible players in the Rugby Europe Championship and World Rugby have now convened an independent disputes committee to look into all these issues.
World Rugby said: “Given this information concerns potential breaches of World Rugby regulations, and given the complexity and interconnectivity of the issues, a full and independent review is warranted. This is in the best interests of the sport, teams and fans and is fully supported by Rugby Europe.”
Related: What are rugby’s eligibility rules?
Depending on the findings of the committee, teams could be fined and removed from the World Cup qualifying process, and match results could be overturned.
There is a precedent for this in that World Rugby overturned Tahiti’s win over Cook Islands after they were found to have fielded two ineligible players.
However, it took seven months from that game last August to the sanctions being announced. World Rugby simply cannot take so long this time given the time constraints involved.
The play-off qualifier between Portugal and Spain was due to take place this month, but that obviously cannot be played until it is determined which team should qualify automatically from the Rugby Europe Championship and which team should be playing Portugal.
The winner of that fixture – when eventually played – is then due to face Samoa in the summer in a two-legged play-off, while the loser will go into the four-team repechage tournament at the end of the year.
Time is clearly of the essence and World Rugby have stressed the committee will be meeting on an “emergency basis” to get an outcome as soon as possible. There could still be a Belgium v Spain replay, but it will be dependent on the results of the eligibility investigation.
Questions will now no doubt be asked about the eligibility of players at all levels of international rugby and how the capturing of players is monitored (it is the responsibility of the union to ensure all players that represent the national team are eligible to do so). The recent controversy could result in an overhaul of the processes surrounding Regulation 8 and possibly even changes to the rules.
As for the reactions of Spain’s players at the end of the match, which cannot be condoned, Rugby Europe has appointed an independent judicial panel to look into their conduct.
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