Australia and New Zealand have been branded “selfish, parochial and cowardly” over their decision to pull out of the World Cup.
Organisers are frantically trying to work out their next step after being caught on the hop by the joint decision of the holders and New Zealand, which came just seven days after it was announced the tournament would go ahead as planned.
Tournament officials were given just four minutes’ notice of the announcement from Australia and New Zealand, who claimed it is “simply too unsafe” to travel due to the coronavirus pandemic.
That provoked an angry response from Rugby Football League chairman Simon Johnson, who 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.”
The decision comes a week after the NRL relocated its competition to Queensland following fresh Covid outbreaks in New South Wales and Victoria but Johnson says the rugby league authorities in Australia are bucking the trend as the world emerges from lockdown.
He said: “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.
“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 the 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.”
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.”
It remains to be seen whether the tournament can now go ahead in 2021 without Australia, who have won the tournament a record 11 times, and 2008 champions New Zealand.
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” for the teams to take part in the tournament.
He 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.”
ARLC chairman Peter V’landys AM reiterated his New Zealand counterpart’s concerns and issued a renewed appeal for the tournament to be rescheduled for next year.
He 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.”
Johnson is hoping that Australia and New Zealand will reverse its decision and believes pressure will come from their players.
He said: “Hidden in their letter is a paragraph that talks about clubs not wanting their players to have to quarantine at the end of the tournament. They’ve known about this for months and months and months.
“I think what has happened here is that the Australian rugby league leadership has not been prepared to face down the parochial interests of the clubs.
“They need to face them down and I think they will because there have been a lot of communication from players about how much they want to play in the World Cup.
“The Australian leadership has got to look those players in the eyes and justify their decision to snatch away their chance to participate at the pinnacle of the international game.
“I believe when the players realise the implication of this, there might come pressure on the clubs from the Australian leaders and that they face them down.”
World Cup organisers are pondering their next move following the news and Johnson says he expects talks to include the Government, which provided £25million in funding for the tournament.
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.”