The race will soon be on to see who can join Japan and Fiji at Rugby World Cup 2023 from Oceania and Asia.
A streamlined regional qualification process involving six teams will determine the Oceania 1 and Asia/Pacific 1 qualifiers in Pool D and Pool B, respectively.
Oceania 1 can look forward to fixtures against the Brave Blossoms, who qualified for France 2023 thanks to their historic quarter-final appearance on home soil in 2019, beaten finalists England, Argentina and the Americas 2 qualifier.
The team that qualifies as Asia/Pacific 1 will come up against reigning Rugby World Cup champions South Africa, Ireland, Scotland and the Europe 2 qualifier.
Meanwhile, Fiji, who secured one of the 12 automatic qualification spots for the next Rugby World Cup following their third-place pool finish in Japan, will face fixtures against Wales, Australia, the Europe 1 qualifier and the Final Qualification Tournament winner.
The Oceania 1 play-off will be contested by Samoa and Tonga over two legs on neutral soil in New Zealand on 10 July in Auckland and 17 July in Hamilton.
Tonga have only failed to compete at a Rugby World Cup once, in 1991, while Samoa have been ever-presents since failing to secure an invitation to the inaugural tournament in 1987.
As two-time quarter-finalists, Samoa have the better Rugby World Cup pedigree but Tonga were responsible for one of the biggest shocks in the tournament’s history when they defeated France, who went on the make the final, at Rugby World Cup 2011.
Tonga are also ranked marginally higher of the two teams, in 13th, which puts them one place and nearly three-quarters of a point better off than their rivals in the World Rugby Men’s Rankings.
With three wins apiece and a draw between them in the last decade, it promises to be a closely fought play-off.
The unfortunate cancellation of this year’s Oceania Rugby Men’s Championship due to the COVID-19 pandemic has put an end to the chances of Papua New Guinea, Niue, the Solomon Islands and Tahiti taking the next step on the road to France.
Instead, the Cook Islands – the highest ranked team among those scheduled to play in the competition – will go straight through to the Asia/Pacific Qualifier, where they will play the loser of the Tonga v Samoa Oceania 1 play-off, on 24 July in Pukekohe, New Zealand.
“It is unfortunate that our Oceania colleagues are unable to participate, and the Cook Islands welcome the news that we will be progressing to the next level. The match against either Samoa and Tonga, who are both ranked in the top 15, is a challenge and opportunity for the Cook Islands to undertake and we are looking forward to it,” said former Cook Islands Rugby Union President, Simiona Teitou.
The Cook Islands have never played Samoa before, while all three previous meetings with Tonga ended in heavy defeats, the last of them in July 2006 by 90-0 in Nuku’alofa.
The winner of this match will then take on the newly-crowned Asia Rugby Championship 2021 champions, with Hong Kong, Korea and Malaysia the sides in contention for that title, for the Asia/Pacific 1 berth in Pool B.
Hong Kong are the highest ranked of the three participating and are bidding for a hat-trick of Asia Rugby Championship titles, after winning the last two editions, in 2018 and 2019.
Malaysia have never beaten them in 11 attempts although on their last visit to Hong Kong, in June 2019, they came close to pulling off a major shock before losing 30-24.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong are currently on a nine-game winning run against Korea dating back to 2015.
The dream of a place at France 2023 will not end for the loser of the Asia/Pacific play-off as they will take their place in the Final Qualification Tournament which will determine the 20th and final qualifier.