By Tariq Saleh

Rugby League World Cup 2021, the organising committee for the tournament in England, has today confirmed the showpiece event has been postponed until next year.

The “extremely difficult” decision was taken by the RLWC2021 board following a meeting on Wednesday evening, and in the wake of the decision of top countries Australia and New Zealand to withdraw from the competition.

As well as the organisers, the board is made up of representatives from the UK government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and the International Rugby League, the sport’s governing body.

RLWC2021 said the decision was made to delay the tournament following “extensive and urgent” consultation conducted by the organising committee’s chief executive Jon Dutton and his team, which engaged players, competing nations, the Rugby League Players Association in Australia, the UK government, hosts, commercial and broadcast partners.

The organisers’ hand was ultimately forced by Australia and New Zealand, which had cited player welfare and safety concerns for pulling out of the World Cup, which was scheduled for 23 October to 27 November.

RLWC2021 said it faced “several unique and complex challenges”, with the most significant being the non-release of up to 400 players, match officials and staff members from the Australia’s National Rugby League.

The organisers claimed this was done by the NRL “despite all requests from international rugby league federations having been met".

World Cup holders Australia and New Zealand came in for heavy criticism both at home and abroad over their withdrawals, with players’ bodies claiming they acted prematurely and without necessary consultation.

The Australian Rugby League Commission and New Zealand Rugby League had called for the tournament, involving men’s, women’s and wheelchair events, to be delayed until 2022, and have now got their wish.

This is despite the organisers being reluctant to do so as the tournament faces a clash with soccer’s Fifa World Cup, which is to be held in Qatar in November and December next year.

In a statement released today, RWLC2021 said: “Ultimately this decision [for Australia and New Zealand to withdraw] has been detrimental to the plans and ambitions of many of the competing nations and potential replacement teams.

“A key factor was ensuring that fans of Rugby League are able to enjoy the best possible tournament, which was not possible under these circumstances.”

The Rugby League World Cup was to have comprised 61 matches across men's, women's and wheelchair competitions, and the organisers were confident of staging it under safe conditions after other major events, including multiple matches at soccer’s European Championships and tennis’ Wimbledon Championships, were successfully held in the UK in recent months.

Dutton said: “Today is a challenging moment for everyone involved in rugby league, but most importantly the players and fans of the competing nations.

“Ultimately, time and competing priorities from others forced us to make the most difficult decision in our six-year history. However, we and the sport of rugby league are resilient, and next year we will deliver our vision of the biggest and best Rugby League World Cup ever.

“We have always prioritised player voice and player choice. We have established a player working group, met with senior players and in the last few days commissioned a player survey to domestic players in Australia and New Zealand that showed more than 85 per cent wanted to compete at RLWC2021 this year.

“However, following the disappointing decision of the ARLC and NZRL to withdraw, and the subsequent impact on player availability for other competing nations, it is apparent that delivering the tournament this year would not be feasible.”

Information on the rescheduling of the tournament and new dates will be released by the organisers in due course.

RLWC2021 had secured key key sponsorship and broadcast deals for the tournament.

The sponsorship line-up includes principal partner Cazoo, New Era, Deloitte, Kappa, Kuehne+Nagel, Assura, Selco Builders Warehouse, Eversheds Sutherland and Manchester Metropolitan University.

The BBC, the UK public-service broadcaster, holds domestic rights to the tournament while a significant deal was signed with streaming service Spark Sport in New Zealand, although rights had yet to be awarded in Australia.

Whisper, the UK-based production firm, was recently awarded the host broadcasting contract.