The top 12 ranked nations at a given point automatically qualify for the tournament, so the timing of the decision is key. The seedings for last year’s Rugby World Cup were based on rankings taken in 2012, three years before the tournament kicked off.
Governing body World Rugby looks likely to change it for the next edition so the seedings are based on rankings taken just two years ahead of 2019 World Cup in Japan. So instead of the seedings being set in stone this summer, we can expect them to be finalised in the second or third quarter of 2017.
The British and Irish Lions tour New Zealand that year just adds another complication because World Rugby’s rankings do not take into account that fact that teams – England and Wales are the obvious examples – will be much weakened after losing their best players to the Lions.
The 2017 summer tours, involving weakened teams, would skew the World Cup seedings so World Rugby will presumably either bring the date forward to immediately after the 2017 Six Nations or, more likely, push back the seedings until after the 2017 autumn window to give teams a chance to field full strength sides and regain ground lost while touring in the summer.
The last World Cup was a roaring success but it would surely have been even better had the host nation lasted beyond the pool stages. Instead England were seeded in the same “Group of Death” as Australia and Wales and they lost to both and became the first hosts to exit at the group stage.
That was at least partly because Wales had squeezed an extra international into the calendar against Australia, which they lost and that defeat saw them slip out of the top eight teams in the world.
World Rugby is walking a tightrope. It must balance the need for the top 12 nations to plan and prepare their World Cup facilities well in advance of 2019 which means fixing the group seedings early; but set them too early and they are in danger of becoming irrelevant. The two-year period, shortened from the current three, is the likely compromise, expected to be agreed at a full board meetimg scheduled for May of this year.
The other consideration is competition from the 2020 Olympics which take place a year later in Toyko. World Rugby may be keen to get its sales operation up and running well before the Japanese sports fans realise the twin demands upon their wallet.
As things stand Scotland sit in ninth place (78.32 points) in the World Rugby rankings, just out of the top two groups of seeds. However they have perhaps 10-13 more matches in which to elbow their way past the French, who are currently ranked eighth (78.36 points), or even Ireland in seventh place (80.33). Both have tougher assignments this summer than the Scots who travel to Japan.
Ireland play a Test series in South Africa while France must travel to Argentina with what will probably be a much weakened squad of players. The tour dates coincide with the semi-finals of the French Top 14.