Rugby League World Cup 2021 hopes left hanging in the balance

Prospects of the 2021 World Cup going ahead in the autumn receded further yesterday when the 16 NRL clubs threw their weight behind the decision of Australia and New Zealand to pull out.

Picture by Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com.

Chief executive Jon Dutton admitted at a news conference on Thursday that the chances of the tournament going ahead as planned were 50-50 but hoped to win over the players by speaking directly to them in an attempt to allay any fears.

The big two nations cited safety concerns amid the coronavirus pandemic as their reason for their withdrawal but it is widely felt that the NRL clubs were behind the decision as they feared being without their top players for the majority of pre-season training ahead of 2022.

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The ARL Commission and NZ Rugby League were branded “cowardly” and “selfish” by Rugby Football League chairman Simon Johnson but the NRL clubs have effectively blocked any possible about-turn.

NOT THIS TIME: Australia celebrate after winning the Rugby League World Cup final against England in Brisbane in 2017. Picture: Tertius Pickard/SWpix.com/PhotosportNZ

Worse still, unless the players agree to defy their employers, the knock-on effect could affect the participation of other southern hemisphere nations who make up half the 16 teams.

The statement said: “The 16 clubs are united that it is in best interests of player health, safety, wellbeing and the international game for the World Cup not to proceed in 2021.

“The support not to play is based on the high COVID-19 infection rate in the United Kingdom and onerous biosecurity and quarantine protocols that would be placed on all players having just completed a lengthy period away from home during the NRL Telstra Premiership.

“The 16 clubs support the World Cup being delayed until 2022 where it is expected there will be less risk to player health and safety and a stronger competition.”

Leeds Rhinos' head coach, Richard Agar. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

South Sydney chief executive Blake Solly, a former general manager of Super League, said a 2022 World Cup would provide a better platform for players and fans.

“We all support our players reaching the pinnacle of representative football, be it All Stars, state or country,” Solly said.

“We’re proud of our players representing their nation, we continue to meet our obligations to players when they are on representative duty, but we also need to be sure they will remain healthy when they do.

“The NRL and its clubs have gone to great lengths and invested heavily to ensure our players remain healthy and the competition continues.

“These measures have been taken with an infection rate in Australia that is minimal when compared to the rate in the UK.

“This rate of infection is far too high for us to be confident the players will not contract Covid-19 during the World Cup in the UK.

“Every club and player has experienced great disruption and challenge over the last two seasons, with the players and their families away from home or living under strict protocols for most of this period.

“To spend another lengthy period away from home, under extremely strict protocols in a nation with a high infection rate and followed by quarantine upon their return to Australia is not a fair ask on the clubs or players.”

Dutton told the news conference there was “little appetite” for a postponement and said officials had begun looking at bringing in Indigenous and Maori representative sides to replace Australia and New Zealand.

Leeds Rhinos’ Richard Agar is a former coach of the French national team and a passionate supporter of the international game, but admits he “can see both sides of the argument” over whether the World Cup should go ahead this year.

Like all Super League clubs, Rhinos have been operating under coronavirus restrictions for more than a year and they have suffered two outbreaks of the virus, despite stringent precautions.

“As an observer, I think it’ll be sad for the game if it doesn’t go on,” said the Leeds coach.

“However, the pandemic and international travel and bubbles are parts of it I do understand and I can see both sides of the argument.

“It would be nice to think we could work through a solution, but I can see why there would be some trepidation and decision making in perhaps not coming.”

Agar stressed: “I really hope it goes ahead.

“It would be great for the game, I have been involved in one before and it was brilliant.

“Fans over here love it, but you can see some issues if you get a couple of outbreaks in a squad and six or seven members of it get stood down for 17 days, in a tournament that lasts a month.”

“You could see some real problems, given the current climate we are trying to work in. We are kidding ourselves if we think it couldn’t be affected like that.

“I can also see the point of view about not travelling, but I hope we can find a solution and get it on.”

Agar stressed: “I am not taking sides, I don’t know the ins and outs.

“I can certainly understand, knowing what it’s like for us, working in conditions like we are day in and day out.”