Rugby League World Cup postponed to 2022 after Australia and New Zealand's withdrawals

·4-min read
Rugby League World Cup postponed to 2022 after Australia and New Zealand's withdrawals - AFP
Rugby League World Cup postponed to 2022 after Australia and New Zealand's withdrawals - AFP

The postponed Rugby League World Cup will be brought forward to avoid a clash with its football counterpart after organisers gave up hope of staging it this year without Australia and New Zealand.

It was confirmed on Thursday that the tournament would be moved to 2022 after Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL) clubs dealt a fatal blow to it taking place this October and November.

A delay of exactly 12 months would have seen its climax clash with the start of the football World Cup in Qatar but the head of the tournament, Jon Dutton, told Telegraph Sport it would be brought forward by at least a week to avoid that.

The staging of the event this year was thrown into doubt last month following Australia and New Zealand’s controversial withdrawal, which saw organisers frantically draw up plans to proceed in October and November without two of its biggest teams, including potentially inviting respective Indigenous and Māori sides to replace them.

But after the 16 NRL clubs went public with their opposition to their players travelling to take part in the event, it left those in charge facing the prospect of it proceeding not only without Australia and New Zealand but their likely understudies – as well as star names from a host of other nations.

Telegraph Sport has been told the cost of postponement could be anywhere between around £1 million and £6m, some of which the taxpayer may be forced to meet.

“The extremely difficult decision was taken by the RLWC2021 board, which includes representation from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and the International Rugby League (IRL) board,” a Rugby League World Cup statement read.

“Tournament organisers faced several unique and complex challenges with the most significant being the non-release of up to 400 players, match officials and staff members from the NRL competition in Australia.

“This is despite all requests from international rugby league federations having been met which included the rigorous health measures that have been keeping thousands of elite athletes from around the world safe whilst competing in major sporting events across the UK over the last year.

“Ultimately this decision has been detrimental to the plans and ambitions of many of the competing nations and potential replacement teams. A key factor was ensuring that fans of rugby league are able to enjoy the best possible tournament, which was not possible under these circumstances.”

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Postponement could lead to some of the World Cup’s 21 venues drop out for what is a tournament that will see the men’s, women’s and wheelchair events run in parallel.

Organisers would also have to offer to refund ticket-holders who did not want to attend any rearranged fixtures.

Australia and New Zealand pulled out of the World Cup two weeks ago citing player welfare concerns relating to coronavirus, a decision branded “selfish, parochial and cowardly” by Simon Johnson, the chairman of the Rugby Football League.

He did so amid suspicions they had caved in to pressure from NRL clubs whose pre-season preparations would have been disrupted when players returned from the tournament due to their own nation’s quarantine rules.

Dutton, the chief executive of RLWC2021, rejected accusations player welfare would be put at risk by the event and said a document had been sent to potential competitors underlining the safety measures being put in place, including bio-secure bubbles and private flights to the UK.

He said: “We have always prioritised player voice and player choice. We have established a player working group, met with senior players and in the last few days commissioned a player survey to domestic players in Australia and New Zealand that showed more than 85 per cent wanted to compete at RLWC2021 this year.

“However, following the disappointing decision of the ARLC (Australian Rugby League Commission) and NZRL (New Zealand Rugby League) to withdraw, and the subsequent impact on player availability for other competing nations, it is apparent that delivering the tournament this year would not be feasible.”

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