The chairman of the Rugby Football League has labelled Australia and New Zealand’s governing bodies “selfish, parochial and cowardly” following their decision to withdraw their national sides from this year’s World Cup, a move that has left competition organisers reeling and trying to decide whether the event can and will proceed without them.
World Cup organisers were given just four minutes notice of the statement from the Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) and New Zealand Rugby League (NZRL) on Thursday confirming they would not be participating this year. Both governing bodies cite player welfare and safety concerns relating to Covid-19 as their reason for pulling out.
But Simon Johnson, the head of the RFL, has launched a scathing attack on his counterparts. “The World Cup organisers have been bending over backwards for many months to accommodate the concerns raised by the Australians and New Zealanders,” he said. “We believed we were in a position where they were willing to come. I’m sorry, but I have no choice other than to call this a selfish, parochial and cowardly decision.”
Greg Peters, chief executive of NZRL, said it was “simply too unsafe” to take part, despite assurances from World Cup organisers over the safety of all players and staff. The South Sydney CEO, Blake Solly, told the Guardian last week that NRL clubs wanted the tournament pushed back into 2022, which is now the most likely possibility as organisers consider whether to take an unprecedented step of proceeding without the two strongest nations. Eight of the last nine World Cups have been won by Australia, with the exception being New Zealand’s 2008 win.
But Johnson stressed that at a time when Australia and New Zealand have sent squads to the Olympics, the decision to withdraw now makes little sense. “They have athletes in Tokyo right now,” he said. “But there’s a point here that Australia were just awarded an Olympics in 2032, and would therefore profess themselves as a leader in women’s and disability sport.
“And yet, the events that suffer the most here are the women’s and wheelchair World Cups. This will provide a serious blow to their development. You wonder how the leadership will turn to its players and say although their counterparts can participate in all sorts of other events, they are going to take away the pinnacle of the sport from them.”
RLWC2021, the tournament organisers, were confident they could assure the ARLC to sign the participation agreement by enforcing strict bubble conditions for participating athletes. But not even that could persuade the ARLC and NZRL that the risk is worthwhile, saying in the current environment in the UK the risk is too great for athletes and officials.
Extended time away from home including quarantine periods was also cited as a reason for withdrawal. The timing of the tournament was also a concern for NRL clubs with players to then quarantine for two weeks upon arrival back in Australia after the final on 27 November. Players would then be entitled to annual leave under their NRL contracts which would mean they would not return to pre-season training until late January.
“RLWC2021 note the disappointing statement made by the ARLC and NZRL which may have wide ranging implications for international Rugby League,” read a statement by the organisers. “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.”
In a statement the International Rugby League chairman, Troy Grant, said: “Whilst I can appreciate the ARLC’s intent to ensure player safety and welfare, I find it difficult to find the words that adequately describe my disappointment with that decision. Every sporting organisation, every industry, government and family globally have been impacted by this pandemic.
“RLWC2021 and IRL only recently stated that we fully appreciated the challenges facing us to run a successful World Cup with player and officials’ safety our priority and we have met every request regarding this issue made of us by ARLC, NZRL and the Rugby League Players Association [RLPA]. All designed to mitigate potential risks and satisfy the demands of ARLC and NZRL.”
The World Cup has already received around £25m of financial backing from the government, and organisers have secured lucrative broadcast and sponsorship packages for the event, which, as things stand, is due to start in Newcastle on 23 October, when hosts England face Samoa at St James’ Park.
“The withdrawal of Australia and New Zealand from the Rugby League World Cup is a massive blow,” said Jo Stevens, the shadow secretary for digital, culture, media and sports (DCMS). “Hosting the World Cup was due to bring an injection of much needed cash to the sport and communities holding the games. Cases are spiralling, yet the government is hell-bent on ‘Freedom Day; at the expense of public health, businesses and now putting one of this year’s biggest sporting events in Britain at risk.”