Rugby World Cup 2015 final referee Nigel Owens will take charge of the first match in the RWC 2019 cycle when St Vincent and the Grenadines host Jamaica in Kingstown on 5 March.
The Welshman's most recent test match outing as referee was at Twickenham when New Zealand beat Australia 34-17 in the 2015 decider on 31 October and, when he travels to the more tropical surrounds of the Caribbean this week, will be refereeing his 69th full international.
Owens, pictured above during the 2015 final, said: "It's an honour to be appointed to this important match and I will prepare in the same way as I always do. Indeed, every time I take the field as a referee it is an honour and even more so when it's a test match. Reffing the Rugby World Cup final was a wonderful experience and one that I will treasure forever but every match is memorable in its own way and I am really looking forward to this next challenge.
"For the players in this match it will be a chance to represent their country on the international stage and be part of the Rugby World Cup process. So from my point of view, it is important that I prepare well and perform to the best of my ability. Hopefully, if I do that it will be a good game that allows the players' talents and hard work to shine through.”
Opportunity to play at RWC 2019
Whether either of those particular teams will be playing at the next Rugby World Cup in Japan remains to be seen but the fact is both have the opportunity to do so. Indeed, every full member of World Rugby can now aspire to playing the game at the highest level.
While the opening ceremony is still three and a half years away, the Rugby World Cup 2019 begins in earnest this month. In total, the competition now features more than 90 nations. The qualifiers comprise around 200 matches, featuring in excess of 3,000 players across six continents, including the developing rugby markets of Brazil, Russia, India and China as well as USA and Mexico.
World Rugby Chairman Bernard Lapasset said: "With a very special Rugby World Cup 2015 fresh in our memories, we are excited to be launching the qualification process for Japan 2019. What is special about this process is that there is a genuine and clear pathway for member unions to make it to the tournament and we know that unforgettable moments will be shared by the players and teams who are beginning their Rugby World Cup journey. Ambitious unions can use qualification for rugby's showpiece tournament as something to aim for and, in the years to come, I believe we can expect to see new teams make their Rugby World Cup debuts.
"It is fitting that Nigel should referee this match as it creates a sense of continuity and shows how important even the first qualifier is in the entire process. In many ways, Rugby World Cup is not just a tournament of 20 teams but in fact it is designed to include all 103 full member unions.”
Eight places in Japan up for grabs
Owens follows in the footsteps of South African Craig Joubert, who refereed the RWC 2011 final and then went on to take charge of the first qualifier for 2015 between Mexico and Jamaica in Mexico City.
With 12 teams having secured their place at Japan 2019 courtesy of finishing in the top three of their respective pools, the remaining eight places will be determined by a process of regional and cross-regional qualifiers and, for the first time, a stand-alone round-robin repechage tournament to determine the final qualifier in 2018. All qualified teams will be known by November 2018.
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