The tournament - due to be hosted largely in the north of England from October 23 - was thrown into disarray this morning by news the two southern hemisphere giants will not take part.
Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) chairman Peter V'landys cited the “safety, health and wellbeing” of its players and officials travelling during the pandemic while New Zealand Rugby League (NZRL) chief Greg Peters said it was “simply too unsafe.”
The British Government has invested £25m into the tournament which will see the men’s, women’s and wheelchair competitions all take part together for the first time.
RLWC2021 chief executive Jon Dutton announced just last week he was confident Australia would take part even though they had still yet to sign a participation agreement.
Dutton said the tournament would go ahead with or without them but today’s news - which it is understood was relayed to the RLWC just minutes before being made public - has come as a surprise.
In a lengthy statement, Grant said: “Late this afternoon I received a call from Australian Rugby League Commission Chairman Peter V’landys AM informing me that the commission had met and voted not to sign the participation agreements for Rugby League World Cup 2021 and would not be supplying Australian players for the three competitions.
“I appreciate Peter calling me to explain the rationale behind the ARLC’s decision and, whilst I can appreciate the ARLC’s intent to ensure player safety and welfare, I find it difficult to find the words that adequately describe my disappointment with that decision.
“Every sporting organisation, every industry, government and family globally have been impacted by this pandemic.
“RLWC2021 and IRL only recently stated that we fully appreciated the challenges facing us to run a successful Rugby League World Cup with player and officials’ safety our priority and we have met every request regarding this issue made of us by ARLC, New Zealand Rugby League (NZRL) and the Rugby League Players Association (RLPA).
“All designed to mitigate potential risks and satisfy the demands of ARLC and NZRL.”
He continued: “I have been in regular communication with the RLPA and a number of international players and coaches who have been satisfied with the world cup’s biosecurity arrangements and expressed a clear determination to travel to England and proudly represent their nations.
“They have expressed to me that they feel their own personal choice to participate or not in the World Cup has been taken from them.
“The RLPA have again committed to continue to work with IRL and the Local Organising Committee towards a 2021 tournament including Australian and New Zealand players who have dual eligibility and who are now keen to play for other nations.”
Grant added: “The withdrawal of the Australian teams has also seen the New Zealand teams withdraw and this may significantly compromise the tournament.
““I have spoken to RLWC2021 chief executive Jon Dutton regarding the news and the obvious impact these decisions have on the tournament, and we will be reconvening to consider our options and next steps once the RLWC2021 Board and UK government have had time to consider and absorb the news themselves.
“My job from here is to understand the LOC’s and UK government’s attitude towards continuing with the RLWC without Australia and New Zealand, if that is a viable option, or consider other options available to us.
“The next week will be critical but despite whatever happens my job as IRL Chair is to pick up the pieces of international rugby league’s tarnished reputation as a result of these decisions when quite clearly other sports have demonstrated their ability to run events during the pandemic, both in England and in other countries with equal challenges from the pandemic, including Australian and New Zealand representation.”
He concluded: “The obvious question being asked of us is why rugby league players are not able to make the same sacrifices as players from other sports?
“Sadly, players are telling me they haven’t had the opportunity to make that decision for themselves.”
A brief RLWC2021 statement read: “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.”