Australia, New Zealand quit Rugby League World Cup over Covid-19

Sydney (AFP) –


The decision by Australia and New Zealand to pull out of the 2021 Rugby League World Cup over Covid-19 concerns rocked tournament organisers Thursday, who said it could have "wide-ranging implications".

League's top two ranked nations cited "player welfare and safety" during the coronavirus pandemic as compelling reasons to delay the tournament until next year.

They said the decision to withdraw came after considering the risk of infection in England, the worsening coronavirus environment in Australia and the time most players would be away from home under strict biosecurity conditions before the World Cup.

The joint statement took tournament organisers RLWC2021 by surprise as it came just a week after they confirmed the World Cup would go ahead as planned.

They described the withdrawal as "disappointing" and said it "may have wide-ranging implications for international Rugby League" but did not elaborate.

"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," the organisers said.

Australia Rugby League Commission boss Peter V'landys said they had to put player wellbeing and safety first.

"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," he said.

"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."

New Zealand Rugby League chief executive Greg Peters said the decision to withdraw was in the best interests of players and officials.

"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," he 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."

The World Cup is scheduled to begin on October 23.

Defending champions Australia were to play Fiji in Hull on the opening day, with New Zealand drawn to play Lebanon in Warrington the following day.

The World Cup is a major source of revenue for International Rugby League, the sport's governing body, and has been supported financially by the British government which is looking to reopen its borders.

If it was put back to 2022 it would be competing with the Women's European Football Championships, also in England, and would clash with media coverage of the FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

Only three nations have won the Rugby League World Cup with Australia the dominant force having been crowned champions 11 times.

Great Britain have won three times, and New Zealand once.