Australia and New Zealand have withdrawn from the Rugby League World Cup due to be held at the end of the year in England, citing player welfare and safety concerns.
In a joint statement on Thursday afternoon, the Australian Rugby League Commission and NZRL urged the tournament to be postponed until 2022 to avoid the risk of a player catching COVID-19.
The extraordinary move comes just a week after tournament officials confirmed the event would go ahead with or without defending champions Australia.
However, organisers were confident they could assure the ARLC to sign the participation agreement by enforcing strict bubble conditions for participating athletes.
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. pic.twitter.com/Qa4UcalL6W
— Rugby League World Cup 2021 (@RLWC2021) July 22, 2021
But not even that could persuade the ARLC and NZRL that the risk is worthwhile, saying in the current environment in the UK the risk is too great for athletes and officials.
Extended time away from home including quarantine periods was also cited as a reason for withdrawal.
The timing of the tournament was also a concern for NRL clubs with players to then quarantine for two weeks upon arrival back in Australia after the November 27 final.
The ARLC and NZRL have today informed the @IntRL and @RLWC2021 organisers that Australia and New Zealand will not compete in a 2021 World Cup because of player welfare and safety concerns.https://t.co/qu6VLnaKTl
— NRL (@NRL) July 22, 2021
Players would then be entitled to annual leave under their NRL contracts which would mean they wouldn’t return to preseason training until late January.
“Not participating in this year’s World Cup is not a decision the commission has taken lightly, but we must put the best interests of our players and officials first. Protecting them is our absolute priority,” said ARLC chairman Peter V’landys.
“In the current environment, the risks to the safety, health and wellbeing of the players and officials travelling from Australia to participate in the tournament this year are insurmountable.
“The majority of NRL players are currently living away from home under difficult biosecurity protocols.
“They would then be required to remain under protocols and away from home for the duration of the tournament before again quarantining on return to Australia. This is too much to ask our players and officials to do.
“We have again requested the IRL and Rugby League World Cup to consider postponing the event until 2022 to enable all players to participate.”
Earlier this week the UK lifted the majority of COVID-19 restrictions while case numbers continue to climb both there and in Australia.
“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,” NZRL chief executive Greg Peters said.
“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.”