There is only a 50-50 chance of the 2021 Rugby League World Cup in England going ahead now that Australia and New Zealand have withdrawn, with a decision to be made in the coming week, the tournament organisers said today.
The showpiece event, which is scheduled for 23 October to 27 November, was thrown into doubt last week when the Australian Rugby League Commission and New Zealand Rugby League pulled their teams out, citing player welfare and safety concerns relating to Covid-19.
Talks have been taking place with other nations on whether to proceed, with RLWC2021 chief executive Jon Dutton saying today that a final decision will be taken next week, after feedback from players, with other options being to postpone to 2022, or cancel altogether.
Speaking at a press conference, he said: “It’s probably 50-50 right now (whether the tournament will go ahead), but we can’t and don’t know until we listen to the players.
“A lot of the concerns are wellbeing rather than safety, being in a bubble environment, away from their families. Without the players, we don’t have a tournament. But time is not on our side.
“Within the next 96 hours, we need to get in front of as many players as possible to understand their fears. We are talking about making a decision in a handful of days. At some point next week we will have a clear outcome.”
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World Cup holders Australia and New Zealand have come in for heavy criticism both at home and abroad over their withdrawal, with players’ bodies claiming they acted prematurely and without necessary consultation.
The ARLC and NZRL have called for the tournament, involving men’s, women’s and wheelchair events, to be delayed until 2022, but the organisers are believed to be reluctant to agree to this as it would clash with soccer’s Fifa World Cup, which is to be held in Qatar in November and December.
Dutton said on Wednesday: “We’ve had two emergency board meetings since last Thursday and the board are unanimous that if we are able, we want to stage the tournament in 2021.
“We have to be responsible given the level of public investment, our broadcast and commercial partners, so we have always had alternative options. They include postponement [to 2022], as unpalatable as that is at the moment in time, and also not staging the event at all.”
One possibility being considered is for the Australia and New Zealand teams to be replaced by sides representing Indigenous and Maori people, but Dutton stressed they would need approval from the International Rugby League to take part in the World Cup.
He said: “We’ve certainly been in communication with the Indigenous and Maori representatives, and we’re certainly excited by those propositions. We’ll undertake some due diligence because they are not national teams or teams which regularly exist at the moment, but certainly that work, communication and consultation is already underway.”
The World Cup organisers today received the support of European Rugby League, which is set to be represented by various teams in the tournament, with the board saying it was in "absolute solidarity" with the plan to proceeed on the scheudled dates.
In a statement, the board said: "The ERL is deeply disappointed by the decisions taken by Australia and New Zealand last week to withdraw their teams from the men’s, women’s and wheelchair events. We do not accept the stated reason offered by them as being either well informed or based on factual reality.
"In the region, we have seen multiple teams from the Southern Hemisphere in many other sports travel north and contribute positively and enthusiastically to their future. The RLWC organisers are working with the top public health officials in England who have advised other successfully hosted events, and will deliver best possible security for the athletes and officials travelling for the tournament."
The ERL board added: "The RLWC is crucial to the development of the game worldwide. It is the revenue generated by it that drives development for the next four-year cycle via the IRL and the associated confederations. Without this revenue, the future is very challenging at a time when all sports are seeking greater global footprints of participation and audiences."
The organisation also said that the uncertainty over the 2021 event had been "very unhelpful" in terms of developing a bid for the following tournament, in 2025, to be held in France, which hosted the original competition in 1954.