The Rugby World Cup is the most important and sought after prize in world rugby. It has grown over the years to be one of the biggest sporting events in the world. The first three tournaments had 16 teams involved but since 1999 there have been 20 teams involved in each tournament.
The tournament is run by RWCL (Rugby World Cup Ltd), a wholly owned subsidiary of the IRB. The host nation is selected by the IRB Council, usually 5 or 6 years in advance of the start date. The trophy played for is the Rugby World Cup, also known as the Webb Ellis Cup (and in Australia, referred to as 'Bill').
During the early 1980's a number of companies and entities approached the IRFB (International Rugby Football Board) with proposals to run a rugby world cup. All were rejected. In 1983 both the ARU and NZRFU prepared proposals and independently submitted them to the IRFB. Both were turned down. The two Unions joined together and submitted a feasibility study to the IRFB and in 1985 this proposal was voted on in Paris at teh annual board meeting. It was passed 6-2. South Africa voted for the proposal even though they would be unable to participate for political reasons.
The year decided on was 1987, to avoid clashes with the Olympic Games and the FIFA World Cup. It would be held in New Zealand and Australia and was originally intended to be a one-off event. It's success was such that it has been held every 4 years since and has grown to be the third largest sporting event in the world, behind the Olympic Games and the FIFA World Cup.
The first tournament was held in New Zealand and Australia. There were 16 teams involved, 7 members of the IRFB and 9 invited countries. They played in 4 pools of 4 teams. 3 pools were based in New Zealand and 1 pool was based in Australia.
In 1991 RWC was hosted by England and again had 4 pools with 4 teams in each. 1 pool was based in England, 1 pool was based in Wales, 1 pool in France and 1 pool was based in Scotland and Ireland. 32 countries had gone through qualifying to try and make the tournament.
The 1995 tournament was held in South Africa, following the re-admittance of South Africa to the rugby world. there were 16 teams again and this was to be the last tournament to be held in the amateur era. Two months after the tournament was over rugby went professional.
In 1999 Wales hosted the tournament. This was the first time that 20 teams were involved and they played in 5 pools of 4 teams. 1 pool was based in Wales, 1 pool in Scotland, 1 pool in England, 1 pool in France and 1 pool in Ireland. This tournament saw the first appearance of teams from Spain and Uruguay, after 65 countries had gone through the qualifying matches.
Australia hosted the 2003 Rugby World Cup. It was originally intended that New Zealand would co-host but politics within the game saw Australia go on it's own. There were 20 teams again, playing in 4 pools of 5 teams. 80 countries had gone through qualifying and Georgia appeared for the first time.
In 2007 France became the host for the first time. During the competition, 4 games were played in Cardiff and Scotland played to games at home in Edinburgh. There were 20 teams playing in 4 pools of 5 teams. 86 countries went through qualifying and Portugal made their first appearance in the tournament.
The tournament returned to New Zealand in 2011. The same format was followed, with 20 teams playing in 4 pools of 5 teams. There had been 86 countries trying to qualify and Russia were to make their first appearance at the tournament. Preparations had to be changed when the Christchurch earthquakes in late 2010 & early 2011 damaged the AMI Stadium to such an extent that all games had to be moved away from Christchurch.
In 2015 the Rugby World Cup returned to England, following the usual format with 20 teams taking part. Games were also to be held in Cardiff, including 2 of the quarter-finals.
The current qualification criteria for the Rugby World Cup starts with the previous tournament. The top 3 teams from each pool automatically qualifies. This leaves 8 positions to be filled by a qualification process. This is a regionally based process and can be a long and involved process for some teams. Note that some of these qualifying tournaments start in the year after a RWC tournament so that is 3 years out from the next RWC.
The winner of the Rugby Africa Championship will qualify. The runner-up will go to the repechage series.
Canada and USA play each other twice with the winner on aggregate qualifying for RWC 2019. The loser will play the top ranked South American team (not Argentina) twice, again with the winner qualifying. The loser will go to the repechage series.
The winner of the Asia Rugby Championship (excluding Japan) will play the winner of the Oceania Cup twice, with the winner going to the repechage series.
Two teams to qualify from a Pacific Nations Cup played over 2 years in 2016 and 2017. The third placed team from the Pacific Nations Cup will play the 2nd placed team from the Rugby Europe Championship twice, with the winner qualifying for RWC 2019. The loser will go to the repechage series.
The highest ranked team from the Rugby Europe Championship (excluding Georgia) will qualify.
The repechage is played for by the four teams that qualified for it through the regional qualifying tournaments. One from Africa, America, Asia and Oceania/Europe.
The teams play in a round-robin format, with the winner qualifying for RWC 2109.