MELBOURNE (Reuters): Defending champions Australia and New Zealand withdrew from the Rugby League World Cup in England yesterday, citing player welfare and safety concerns amid the COVID-19 pandemic in a massive blow for the sport’s global showpiece.
The Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) and New Zealand Rugby League (NZRL) said they had repeated a request to organisers to postpone the 23 October-27 November event until 2022 to “minimise risk of players contracting COVID-19”.
“The decision to withdraw from the RLWC2021 comes after considering the risk of COVID-19 infection in the United Kingdom, the worsening environment in Australia and the time a majority of NRL (National Rugby League) players will spend away from home under strict biosecurity conditions prior to the World Cup,” they said in a joint statement.
Rugby Football League (RFL) chairman Simon Johnson called the withdrawals “a selfish, parochial and cowardly decision”.
“Rugby League World Cup organisers have bent over backwards to offer every assurance to the Australians and the Kiwis,” Johnson told the BBC. “We are very unhappy with this decision and we are not prepared to take it lying down.” World Cup Organisers said they were informed about the withdrawals at “very short notice” and would continue discussions with stakeholders to agree on the best way forward. “RLWC2021 note the disappointing statement made by the ARLC and NZRL which may have wide ranging implications for international Rugby League,” organisers said in a statement.
COVID-19 infections are increasing in the UK (graphics.reuters.com/world-coronavirus-tracker-and-maps/countries-and-territories/united-kingdom), with 47,114 new ones reported on average each day. The UK has recorded 5.5 million confirmed cases and 128,896 total deaths, according to a Reuters tally.
Australia is also battling outbreaks of COVID-19 albeit on a much smaller scale. Around 13 million people, or half the country’s population, are under strict lockdown. Australia’s ‘Kangaroos’ have dominated the World Cup, winning eight out of the last nine editions dating back to the 1970s.
New Zealand, whose top players also compete in the NRL, won the 2008 World Cup hosted by Australia.