Australia and New Zealand withdraw from Rugby League World Cup due to coronavirus concerns
The 2021 Rugby League World Cup is set to be held in England between October 23 and November 27; NZRL chief executive Greg Peters cited "stark differences" between the management of the pandemic in the UK and Australasia and insisted it was "simply too unsafe" to take part
By Blake Welton
Last Updated: 22/07/21 5:01pm
Australia and New Zealand have been branded "selfish, parochial and cowardly" over their decision to pull out of the Rugby League World Cup due to coronavirus concerns.
The tournament is set to be held in England between October 23 and November 27 and was to include 16 teams for the first time - an increase of two from the previous two tournaments.
Organisers only confirmed that the men's, women's and wheelchair events would go ahead as scheduled last week, although holders and 11-time winners Australia did not sign the participation agreement.
New Zealand Rugby League (NZRL) chief executive Greg Peters said it was "simply too unsafe" to take part amid the ongoing pandemic.
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However, in an angry response, Rugby Football League (RFL) chairman Simon Johnson said: "The World Cup organisers have bent over backwards and turned double somersaults to meet every single requirement that was asked of them, by the Australians particularly.
"To have those assurances completely dismissed, I am angry about this. This is a selfish, parochial and cowardly decision which has been taken by the Australian and New Zealand leadership."
NZRL chief Peters cited "stark differences" between the management of the pandemic in the UK and Australasia as another contributing factor in their decision to withdraw.
"The safety and well-being of our people is the main priority and, unfortunately, that cannot be guaranteed to our satisfaction," he said.
"There are stark differences between how the pandemic is being managed in the UK compared to Australasia and recent developments have highlighted how quickly things can change.
"The tournament organisers have moved heaven and earth to make this work, so it is not an easy decision, but the Covid-19 situation in the UK shows no sign of improving, and it's simply too unsafe to send teams and staff over."
ARLC chairman Peter V'landys AM reiterated his New Zealand counterpart's concerns, and said: "In the current environment, the risks to the safety, health and well-being of the players and officials travelling from Australia to participate in the tournament this year are insurmountable."
The decision comes a week after the NRL relocated its competition to Queensland following fresh Covid outbreaks in New South Wales and Victoria.
But, RFL chief Johnson says the rugby league authorities in Australia are bucking the trend as the world emerges from lockdown.
"I would have some sympathy for them were I not aware that right now Australian athletes are in Tokyo for the Olympics, that New Zealand men's cricketers have played in England this summer and that the rugby union team from Australia will be coming for a series of internationals in October," he said.
"So, if their sports' governing bodies are comfortable with the arrangements that are made, why are the rugby league authorities not satisfied with that?
"I think the impact, particularly for women's rugby league and wheelchair rugby league will be particularly devastating.
"And I cannot escape the irony of a country which only yesterday was awarded the Olympic Games for 2032 and which promotes itself as the home of sport, has taken a decision that might well cause a fatal blow to the development of women's rugby league and wheelchair rugby league."
Super League chairman Ken Davy said he was astounded by Australia and New Zealand's decision to withdraw, highlighting that both nations have sent athletes to the Olympics while their rugby union teams will tour the UK in October and November.
The All Blacks and Wallabies will both face Wales in Cardiff, with Australia also playing England and Scotland at Twickenham and Murrayfield respectively.
Davy said: "The organisers have done everything possible to provide both nations with strong evidence of the robust protocols and procedures to keep players safe.
"It is quite astounding that athletes from Australia and New Zealand are about to compete in the Olympics, in addition to the Australian and New Zealand rugby union teams being in the UK this autumn, yet their rugby league counterparts have decided to withdraw.
"The UK has already shown that it can successfully deliver a major international event in Euro 2020, under far stricter conditions to those anticipated in the autumn.
"We are fully behind Jon Dutton and his RLWC2021 team. We continue to offer Super League's utmost support to the tournament organisers given the significant benefits this event can deliver for the sport."
A joint statement from the two nations announcing the decision read: "The Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) and New Zealand Rugby League (NZRL) today informed the International Rugby League (IRL) and Rugby League World Cup (RLWC) organisers that Australia and New Zealand will not compete in a 2021 World Cup because of player welfare and safety concerns.
"The ARLC and NZRL have again requested the RLWC2021 be postponed until 2022 to minimise risk of players contracting COVID-19 and ensure the best outcome for player well-being.
"The ARLC and NZRL have resolved, that in the present environment the risks to athletes and officials travelling to the UK to participate in the tournament this year are too great, and it is unable to endorse Australia and New Zealand participating in the RLWC in 2021."
In response to Australia and New Zealand's announcement, World Cup 2021 organisers released a statement saying it could have "wide-ranging implications".
It added: "RLWC2021 were informed at very short notice and will continue discussions with all stakeholders to agree on the best way forward. A further statement will be made in due course."
'Aus, NZ decision disappointing but not surprising'
Former Great Britain and England international Phil Clarke says he is "disappointed but not surprised" at Australia and New Zealand's decision to withdraw from the Rugby League World Cup.
He told Sky Sports News: "I'm tremendously disappointed but not surprised. I think there have been over 120,000 deaths from Covid in this country, and less than 1,000 in Australia. There's a tremendous fear from players in Australia and New Zealand about travelling to the UK.
"Despite a tremendous effort from the British government to support this Rugby League World Cup, it does appear now it's in great jeopardy."
Clarke added it was understandable that players would not want to travel to the UK given the lengths they are going to in order to finish their domestic seasons.
"The players making up Australia and New Zealand, maybe Samoa, Fiji and other sides from the southern Pacific areas, they are now quarantined in hotel accommodation for a three-month period while their season continues," explained Clarke.
"So being away from home, isolated in a hotel bubble environment, away from family and loved ones and unable to live a normal life. To compound that by travelling to the UK for a seven-week tournament almost feels too much for them at this stage.
"But there is still some hope that perhaps they can be turned around because of everything being done to make it as safe as possible."