He yesterday labelled holders Australia and the Kiwis as “selfish, parochial and cowardly” over their decision to pull out of the tournament which is due to be held largely in the north of England in October and November.
They cited player welfare and safety concerns as the main issue as it was too unsafe to travel during the pandemic – although there were reports last night that plenty of stars from Down Under were still keen to take part.
The Rugby League Players Association is expected to make a statement in the next 24 hours and RLWC2021 organisers hope those players could yet put pressure on their NRL clubs to force a U-turn.
RLWC2021 chief executive Jon Dutton announced just last week he was confident Australia – who have won eight of the last nine World Cups – would feature even though they had still yet to sign a participation agreement.
He said the tournament would go ahead with or without them but yesterday’s news has left more questions than answers.
The British Government has invested £25m into the tournament, which sees the men’s, women’s and wheelchair competitions all take part together for the first time, and is keen for it to go ahead this year although Australia and New Zealand have pressed for a postponement until 2022.
“I’m not sure from a Covid perspective what’s going to be different in 2022 that isn’t here in autumn 2021,” said Johnson.
“By that time Australia will have played a whole rugby union Test series here, the Olympics, Paralympics and Commonwealth Games will have happened, we’ll have full stadiums at football...
“The assurances the World Cup organisers gave were comprehensive, bespoke and extremely well-resourced. I’m not sure given we’re opening up whether things will be different.
“I don’t think postponing is a real option; if we don’t do it in 2021 there’s a chance it may not happen at all.”
Postponing would prove hugely problematic and would see a glorious chance to showcase the sport missed; all 61 games across the men’s, women’s and wheelchair tournaments are being shown live on BBC platforms which is unlikely to happen in 2022 as any tournament would overlap with football’s World Cup.
Furthermore, many of the competition’s venues – such as Leeds United’s Elland Road and Sheffield United’s Bramall Lane – will be unavailable.
With 16 nations originally competing, there is scope to bring in two other countries to fill the void and there has been appetite for an Australian and/or New Zealand side made up of Super League-based players although that will bring its own problems.
The Australian Rugby League Commission has been accused of being myopic in its stance with their clubs concerned about players needing to quarantine upon their return from the UK and being unable to return to action until shortly before the start of the 2022 NRL season.
Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston, RFL CEO Ralph Rimmer and RLWC2021’s Dutton last night made a joint-statement.
It read: “We are extremely surprised and disappointed in today’s unexpected announcement from the Australian and New Zealand rugby league authorities.
“Over recent weeks we have met all requests to set out the rigorous health measures that have kept thousands of elite athletes from around the world safe whilst competing in major sporting events across the UK.
“Indeed, Australian and New Zealand athletes continue to compete in sporting events here, such as in cricket and rugby union. Today we have met and agreed to continue working closely with the Rugby League World Cup Organising Committee.
“In the best interests of the sport and its millions of fans around the world, we remain open to further discussions with the Australian and New Zealand rugby league authorities about what further reassurances they might need. We remain committed to the tournament and putting on a superb spectacle of sport.”
Ironically, Australia’s football team the Olyroos were last night celebrating a shock and historic win over Argentina at the Olympics in Tokyo heaping more embarrassment on their rugby league authorities for blocking the Kangaroos visiting the UK.
International Rugby League chair Troy Grant was similarly irate by the developments.
“The next week will be critical,” said the former Australian politician.
“But despite whatever happens my job 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, in England and in other countries with equal challenges from the pandemic, including Australian and New Zealand representation.
“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.”