Cook Islands’ bid to qualify for the next Rugby League World Cup has become more difficult following the sport’s international governing body’s decision to reduce the number of teams by six to 10 in the 2026 tournament.

The next Rugby League World Cup, to be held in 2026 in the southern hemisphere, will be played on a reduced scale.

This was decided at the International Rugby League (IRL) board meeting in Singapore.

The 2026 Rugby League World Cup will feature 10 men’s, eight women’s and eight wheelchair teams. The changes were made after France’s decision to withdraw as hosts of the previously scheduled 2025 Rugby League World Cup.

The eight men’s quarter-finalists from RLWC2021, played last year in England, will automatically qualify for the 2026 Rugby League World Cup, along with the four Women’s and Wheelchair semi-finalists.

The IRL will consult with member nations to design a qualification framework for remaining World Cup berths.

Cook Islands men’s and women’s teams will have to go through a tough qualifying process in order to make the cut.

Charles Carlson, president of Cook Islands Rugby League Association, called the new changes “disappointing and disheartening”.

“It is very disappointing to hear the latest announcement by the IRL, to reduce the number of teams to 10 from 16 for the next World Cup 2026, especially after a very successful Rugby League World Cup last year,” Carlson told Cook Islands News.

“As a former member of the IRL Board this is very disheartening to see 15 years of hard work to grow the World Cup from 10 teams to a 16-team competition. Obviously, the IRL will be dissecting where they have gone wrong with this one with a long road to recovery.”

Carlson said the decision by France to withdraw as the host nation for the 2025 World Cup “has no doubt impacted the decision to cut back on teams”.

“To go from 16 to 10 teams will have a massive impact on the game internationally, which means some regions will miss out. Not sure how the qualifying will work with only two spots available to be contested across the regions. This will also affect the Cook Islands women’s chances in the next World Cup 2025 after automatically qualifying for the event at the World Cup last year. Only top four now will qualify instead of top eight which means Cook Islands women will go through the qualifying round like the men.”

According to, by reverting to 10 men’s teams – the same number that participated at the 2008 World Cup – RLWC2026 and RLWC2030 will be elite tournaments featuring the strongest nations and best players.

Greater emphasis will thereby be placed on developing Regional Championships for Asia-Pacific, Europe, Middle East-Africa and the Americas, to ensure there are genuine pathways for nations to develop and ultimately qualify for future World Cups.

Carlson said: “We just have to get back to the drawing board and map out a strategy to ensure the Cook Islands are represented at the Rugby League World Cup 2026 for both our men and women.”

IRL Chair Troy Grant said: “The IRL board has made these decisions to create more compelling content and secure the financial future of the international game”.

“The cancellation of France 2025 has given us an opportunity to refresh the structure of the World Cup and associated tournaments as part of a long-term international calendar that all in the game have been desperately seeking.

“The Rugby League World Cup is the pinnacle of our sport and an elite tournament that all nations should aspire to take part in.

“With 10 men’s teams at the 2026 and 2030 World Cups, there will be greater focus on Regional Championships and qualifying tournaments.

“The growth of Women’s Rugby League has been at such a phenomenal rate that the IRL Board believes they deserve to have their own World Cup staged as a stand-alone tournament from 2028 onwards.

“With the Men’s World Cup cycle moving back a year, there will now be a World Cup every 24 months, but this is not a set-and-forget international calendar and there will be opportunities to capitalise on the future growth we believe these changes will generate.”