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‘Catastrophic’: Rugby League World Cup rocked by Australia and New Zealand withdrawal

Organisers of this year’s event in England now have a huge decision to make

With the men’s, women’s and wheelchair events all taking place simultaneously for the first time in history, the 2021 Rugby League World Cup in England has been billed as a “breakthrough moment” for the sport. 

Scheduled from 23 October to 27 November at 18 host venues across the country, the three competitions featuring 61 games would make the RLWC2021 the “biggest and best” ever, organisers said on a visit to Downing Street recently.

However, with three months to go until the opening matches, yesterday’s decision by holders Australia and New Zealand to withdraw from the World Cup has left plans “in chaos” and potentially “in ruins”, The Times reports. 

The southern hemisphere giants, two of the sport’s biggest attractions, have pulled out of the event citing “player welfare and safety concerns” related to Covid-19.  

Greg Peters, chief executive of New Zealand Rugby League (NZRL), said the Covid situation in the UK “shows no sign of improving and it’s simply too unsafe to send teams and staff over”. Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) chairman Peter V’landys added it is “not a decision the commission has taken lightly, but we must put the best interests of our players and officials first. Protecting them is our absolute priority”.

The ARLC and NZRL have requested the RLWC2021 be postponed until 2022 to “minimise risk of players contracting Covid-19 and ensure the best outcome for player wellbeing”, NRL.com reports.

‘Selfish and cowardly decision’

Organisers were only given four minutes’ notice of the announcement yesterday, the BBC reports. In a tweet RLWC2021 said the “disappointing statement” made by the ARLC and NZRL may have “wide ranging implications for international rugby league”. 

Rugby Football League (RFL) chairman Simon Johnson called it a “selfish, parochial and cowardly decision”. Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme he said: “Rugby League World Cup organisers have bent over backwards to offer every assurance to the Australians and the Kiwis. We are very unhappy with this decision and we are not prepared to take it lying down.”

The shock withdrawal comes just a week after organisers confirmed the event would be going ahead as scheduled, the FT reports. Broadcaster Clare Balding, who holds the honorary position of RFL president, said on BBC Breakfast that “without Australia and New Zealand, this is catastrophic”. 

Super League, the top level of the British rugby league system, called the timing of the decision “astonishing”. Chairman Ken 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.”

Australia beat England 6-0 in the 2017 Rugby League World Cup final

Australia beat England 6-0 in the 2017 Rugby League World Cup final

Getty Images

What happens next for the RLWC2021? 

“It’s a World Cup emergency”, is how Love Rugby League reacted to the withdrawal of the two nations. “In my opinion we just can’t have the World Cup without Australia and New Zealand, no way,” said Love Rugby League editor James Gordon. “There’s four countries in the entire world that have professional clubs – Australia, New Zealand, England and France. You can’t have the two of the three or four biggest nations not in the World Cup. I just don’t see how the World Cup can go on.”

BBC rugby league correspondent Dave Woods says the organisers now have a “big decision” to take - push on with this year’s tournament without Australia and New Zealand, or postpone until 2022. “To hold the tournament without two of the international game’s major powers would have a huge impact on its credibility,” Woods said. “But to put it off till next year will lead to huge costs and possibly intangible organisational problems. A third option is to cancel altogether.”

“Personally, I don’t think postponing is a real option,” RFL chairman Johnson admitted. “If we don’t do it in 2021 there’s a chance it may not happen at all.”

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