Australia and New Zealand have withdrawn from the Rugby Union World Cup due to “player welfare and safety concerns” linked to Covid-19.
The men’s, women’s and wheelchair events are scheduled to take place in England this fall.
New Zealand Rugby League (NZRL) chief Greg Peters said it was “just too dangerous” to participate.
Rugby Football League (RFL) president Simon Johnson called it a “selfish, parochial and cowardly decision”.
“The organizers of the Rugby Union World Cup bent over backwards to offer every guarantee to the Australians and the Kiwis,” Johnson told BBC Radio 4’s Today program.
“We are very unhappy with this decision and we are not ready to take it while lying down.”
NZRL chief Peters said the decision to step down was taken because the safety and well-being of players and staff “cannot be guaranteed to our satisfaction”.
“There are stark differences between the way the pandemic is handled in the UK compared to Australasia, and recent developments have highlighted how quickly things can change.
“The tournament organizers have moved heaven and earth to make it work, so it’s not an easy decision, but the UK Covid-19 situation shows no signs of improving, and it’s just too much dangerous to send teams and personnel. “
Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) Chairman Peter V’landys said: “Not making this year’s World Cup is not a decision the Commission has taken lightly, but we We must put the best interests of our players and officials first and protecting them is our top priority.
“In the current environment, the risks to the safety, health and well-being of players and officials traveling from Australia to participate in the tournament this year are insurmountable.
“We have again asked the IRL and the Rugby World Cup to consider postponing the event until 2022 to allow all players to participate.”
About half of Australia’s population has been returned to confinement following a spike in Covid-19 cases, with stay-at-home orders now in place in South Australia, Victoria and parts of New South Wales.
This contrasts sharply with England, with the majority of coronavirus restrictions now lifted despite the increase in cases.
The organizers have only confirmed that the tournament will take place earlier this month, although Australia, holder and 11 times winner, did not sign the participation agreement.
One of the issues previously raised is the Covid-19 regulations and quarantine rules for players and staff returning to Australia and New Zealand.
Australia’s borders are currently closed, so anyone returning must spend 14 days in government-managed quarantine.
There are reports that Australian National Rugby League (NRL) teams want the tournament postponed to next year because these regulations mean that players would only return to their clubs two weeks before the start of try-out matches for the 2022 NRL season.
Rugby league officials estimate that around 400 to 500 players, staff and team leaders from NRL teams, representing several different countries, are involved in the World Cup.
The head of the RFL dissatisfied with the decision
Responding to the ruling, RFL Chairman Johnson asked why the Australian and New Zealand teams still travel to compete in other sports.
He also believes the postponement to 2022 would cause further problems as it would conflict with other major sporting events that year.
“I think the British public would like to know why they made this decision now about a tournament in October when there are currently athletes in Tokyo competing in the Olympics, when their rugby union team are planning to. coming to Wales in October and when the New Zealand cricket team has already come here to participate, “he said.
“So there is something that the Rugby League authorities find insurmountable where other sports have no problem.
“The organizers of the Rugby Union World Cup have made considerable commitments at great cost, as has the UK government, to do what they can to ensure the safety of the athletes when they are here and when they return and travel between them.I’m afraid the rugby league authorities in Australia and New Zealand are just not ready to accept these assurances.
“Of course it is possible to postpone, but by the time the rugby league plays next year, we will be competing in the Commonwealth Games and the FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
“October and November 2021 are perfect as all restrictions have been lifted here in the UK and with fans returning to sporting events I think there will be full participation.
“We’ve sold tickets, how do we explain to our fans that they won’t see the Australian rugby team play in Wales in October?”
A statement from the tournament organizers reads: “RLWC2021 notes the disappointing statement made by the ARLC and NZRL which may have far-reaching implications for the International Rugby League.
“RLWC2021 has been briefed on a very short notice and will continue discussions with all stakeholders to agree on the best way forward. Another statement will be made in due course. “
Analysis by BBC Rugby League correspondent Dave Woods
Rugby World Cup organizers – who received four minutes’ notice of this morning’s announcement from Australia – now have a big decision to make – to continue this year’s tournament without Australia and New Zealand, or postpone to 2022.
Hosting the tournament without two of the great powers of international football would have a huge impact on its credibility.
But putting it off until next year will entail huge costs and possibly intangible organizational problems. A third option is to cancel completely.
There will be enormous anger directed at Australian clubs in the international game. The big suspicion is that this decision is based on the own national interests of these clubs.
The organizers of RLWC2021 will highlight the fact that this country has already safely hosted major international sporting events this year – the Euro, the Open, Wimbledon. And that Australia send athletes overseas for other sporting events, including the Olympics.
So are Australian clubs more concerned with their own backyard issues – what impact a World Cup would have on their 2022 domestic season – rather than the good of the game at large?
And given their general lack of support for the International Rugby League, would these Australian clubs still face obstacles in the World Cup even if it was postponed until next year?
But to counter that, the game down may indicate continued disruption in England’s rugby league, with Super League matches still being called off every week due to Covid issues.
How confident can we be that normalcy will be restored before the scheduled kick-off of RLWC2021 on October 23?
And with Australia falling far short of its vaccine deployment targets, there is still understandable nervousness about potential variants imported into this country following an event like the Rugby Union World Cup.
But whatever the good and the bad of today’s announcement by ARLC and NZRL, and whatever happens next with the organization of RLWC2021, a massive and unprecedented opportunity to promote the League sport of rugby with a large international audience will now be missed.