World Cup organisers are frantically working out their next step following the decision of Australia and New Zealand to pull out of the tournament.
A week on from announcing the event would go ahead as planned in England in October and November, officials were caught on the hop by the news from down under and are hurriedly trying to assemble an emergency board meeting to discuss their response.
The PA news agency understands that the tournament officials were given just four minutes’ notice of the announcement from the governing bodies in Australia and New Zealand.
Why have Australia and New Zealand pulled out of RLWC2021?
With Covid-19 infection rates in England continuing to rise, the two southern hemisphere powerhouses have decided to pull out after repeated calls for the competition to be postponed until 2022.
A joint statement from the two nations said: “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.”
Will the 2021 Rugby League World Cup still go ahead?
It remains to be seen whether the tournament can now go ahead without Australia, who have won the tournament a record 11 times, and 2008 champions New Zealand.
A statement issued by World Cup organisers said: “RLWC2021 note the disappointing statement made by the ARLC and NZRL which may have wide ranging implications for international Rugby League.
“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 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,” said ARLC chairman Peter V’landys AM.
“We have again requested the IRL and Rugby League World Cup consider postponing the event until 2022 to enable all players to participate.”
What will happen to tickets?
Tickets were released on general sale again last week, after organisers announced the tournament would go ahead as planned.
In the men’s competition, Australia were due to play in Group B with Fiji, Scotland and Italy, while New Zealand were in Group C with Lebanon, Ireland and Jamaica.
Australia were due to be in action on Saturday 23 October v Fiji, at the KCOM Stadium (Hull), on Friday 29 October v Scotland at Coventry’s Ricoh Arena, and on Saturday 6 November at St Helens’ Totally Wicked Stadium against Itlay.
New Zealand’s fixtures were against Lebanon on Sunday 24 October at Warrington, then two games at Headingly in Leeds against Jamaica and Ireland.
Those tickets will now be void and organisers will issue details about potential refunds once they have decided whether the tournament will still go ahead.
What else has been said?
NZRL chief executive Greg Peters said: “The safety and well-being of our people is the main priority, and unfortunately, that cannot be guaranteed to our satisfaction.
“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.
“We understand how disappointing this is for fans and those involved; however player and staff safety remains paramount.”