He confirmed yesterday that the 2021 World Cup – involving mens, womens and wheelchair events simultaneously – will kick-off as planned on October 23 even though Australia have still yet to sign the participation agreement.
With concerns over Covid-19, quarantine rules for players travelling back home to Australia and New Zealand and the start of the NRL domestic season in 2022, there had been fears it could be postponed until next year.
However, having pointed to Euro 2020 and Wimbledon successfully being staged in England recently plus staunch Government support, Dutton said organisers opted to press on and have now passed “the point of no return” with just 99 days to go.
Asked specifically about the Kangaroos’ involvement, he said: “There is still work to be done and it’s no secret there’s been lots of speculation about Australia’s participation.
“We are very confident that Australia will join the other 20 competing nations.
“We acknowledge that there are other challenges ahead... but we wouldn’t be making this announcement today if we didn’t have the confidence that those nations would arrive in this country and compete in this tournament. We met with all of 21 nations earlier in the week and appreciate some of the challenges they are going through.
“But there is an incredible appetite for the tournament at this stage. We wanted to take away the uncertainty.
“From a players, coaches and administrators’ perspective there are still things to work on but the overriding feeling this week has been nothing but positivity.”
Dutton says they have ticked off “big ticket items” with representatives in Australia but some obstacles remain.
He said: “We’re asking players to make a very big commitment, especially those going back to Australia and New Zealand who have to spend 14 days in managed quarantine. We wish we could make that go away. We can’t.
“We’re interested in the trial in South Australia of home quarantine. Maybe that will happen in time for the tournament.
“However, instead of saying we can’t do things, we just have to do things in other ways. Inevitably there will be some compromise.”
Dutton said there are contingencies ready to replace Australia if they do opt against taking part but “we are focused on the nations that have won the right to play in this tournament and the nations we are expecting and excited to see.”
He said organisers are working to ensure those who do make the trip will be able to enjoy some freedoms while on tour as part of “hybrid” bio-secure bubbles.
“It’s a careful balance between player safety is paramount, getting to the start line and then delivering a world-class tournament and also ensuring we give people a true life experience and perhaps that one and only experience to play in a Rugby League World Cup,” said Dutton.
He also confirmed RLWC2021 would charter flights to bring around 400 to 500 players, staff and team officials from NRL clubs involved in the tournament
Dutton added: “Clearly that’s not something we budgeted for originally. But what I’d point to is our quite exceptional commercial performance. We have already exceeded commercial targets so yes we are digging deep to pay for this but that’s a demonstration of how important this tournament is and the measures we’ll go to, to make sure it stays this year.
“And we are very confident, as tournament organisers, we will provide the biggest ever financial return back to the International Rugby League.”
International Rugby League chairman Troy Grant was similarly bullish.
The Australian said: “The World Cup going ahead this year is critical. There was no international rugby league in 2020 and it was sorely missed, particularly given the momentum Tonga’s win over Australia (in 2019) created.
“The talk I’ve heard across the southern hemisphere is a real yearning for international rugby league to reclaim its status across the game more broadly. This is an opportunity for us to take a big leap forward and one we’ve been waiting on for far too many years.
“I can’t wait to get to England and see it myself. It will help us finally unlock and realise potenitonal international rugby league has had for far too long but hasn’t been realised.”
On Australia’s involvement, he added: “If soccer players can play, tennis players – our wonderful Ash Barty can win Wimbledon and make a whole nation proud – and our golfers are at The Open, if they can all do that, why can’t our rugby league players as well with the surety been put around looking after their welfare?
“I think the reputational damage to rugby league would be immense for those that deliberately elect not to participate.”