International Rugby League chair Troy Grant has strongly criticised the decision of Australia and New Zealand to pull out of the World Cup in England and says some of their players are now considering switching allegiances to enable them to take part in the tournament.
Anger is mounting over the decision, which Australia and New Zealand says has been made because of the worsening Covid-19 situation in the UK which has made it “simply too unsafe to send teams and staff over”.
Grant, who says he finds it difficult to find the words that adequately describe his disappointment, will liaise with World Cup organisers to decide the next step.
“My job from here is to understand the local organising committee’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,” Grant said.
“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.”
Grant says he remains in contact with the Australian Players Association (RLPA) and believes players such as Kangaroos full-back James Tedesco could be tempted to switch his allegiance back to Italy, for whom he played in the 2017 World Cup.
“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 bio-security arrangements and expressed a clear determination to travel to England and proudly represent their nations,” the Australian said.
“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.”
Organisers are frantically trying to work out their next step after being caught on the hop by the decision, which came just seven days after it was announced the tournament would go ahead as planned.
The PA news agency understands that tournament officials were given just four minutes’ notice of the announcement from Australia and New Zealand, who claimed it is “simply too unsafe” to travel due to the coronavirus pandemic.
That provoked an angry response from Rugby Football League chairman Simon Johnson, who told PA: “The World Cup organisers have bent over backwards and turned double somersaults to meet every single requirement that was asked of them, by the Australians particularly.
“To have those assurances completely dismissed, I am angry about this. This is a selfish, parochial and cowardly decision which has been taken by the Australian and New Zealand leadership.”
The decision comes a week after the NRL relocated its competition to Queensland following fresh Covid outbreaks in New South Wales and Victoria but Johnson says the rugby league authorities in Australia are bucking the trend as the world emerges from lockdown.
“I would have some sympathy for them were I not aware that right now Australian athletes are in Tokyo for the Olympics, that New Zealand men’s cricketers have played in England this summer and that the rugby union team from Australia will be coming for a series of internationals in October,” he said.
“So, if their sports’ governing bodies are comfortable with the arrangements that are made, why are the rugby league authorities not satisfied with that?
“I think the impact, particularly for women’s rugby league and wheelchair rugby league will be particularly devastating.
“And I cannot escape the irony of a country which only yesterday was awarded the Olympic Games for 2032 and which promotes the itself as the home of sport, has taken a decision that might well cause a fatal blow to the development of women’s rugby league and wheelchair rugby league.”
A joint statement from the two nations said: “The Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) and New Zealand Rugby League (NZRL) today informed the International Rugby League (IRL) and Rugby League World Cup (RLWC) organisers that Australia and New Zealand will not compete in a 2021 World Cup because of player welfare and safety concerns.
“The ARLC and NZRL have again requested the RLWC2021 be postponed until 2022 to minimise risk of players contracting COVID-19 and ensure the best outcome for player well-being.
“The ARLC and NZRL have resolved, that in the present environment the risks to athletes and officials travelling to the UK to participate in the tournament this year are too great, and it is unable to endorse Australia and New Zealand participating in the RLWC in 2021.”
It remains to be seen whether the tournament can now go ahead in 2021 without Australia, who have won the tournament a record 11 times, and 2008 champions New Zealand.
Johnson is hoping that Australia and New Zealand will reverse its decision and believes pressure will come from their players.
“Hidden in their letter is a paragraph that talks about clubs not wanting their players to have to quarantine at the end of the tournament,” Johnson added. “They’ve known about this for months and months and months.
“I think what has happened here is that the Australian rugby league leadership has not been prepared to face down the parochial interests of the clubs.
“They need to face them down and I think they will because there have been a lot of communication from players about how much they want to play in the World Cup.
“The Australian leadership has got to look those players in the eyes and justify their decision to snatch away their chance to participate at the pinnacle of the international game.
“I believe when the players realise the implication of this, there might come pressure on the clubs from the Australian leaders and that they face them down.”
World Cup organisers are pondering their next move following the news and Johnson says he expects talks to include the UK Government, which provided £25million in funding for the tournament.
A statement issued by World Cup organisers said: “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.”
Enjoy the convenience of having The Sunday Post delivered as a digital ePaper straight to your smartphone, tablet or computer.
Subscribe for only £5.49 a month and enjoy all the benefits of the printed paper as a digital replica.Subscribe