By Tariq Saleh

The organisers of this year’s Rugby League World Cup have today been rocked by the news that Australia and New Zealand have officially withdrawn from the tournament in England due to player welfare and safety concerns related to Covid-19.

Both the Australian Rugby League Commission and New Zealand Rugby League have asked the organisers and the International Rugby League, the sport’s governing body, to reschedule the competition for next year.

The World Cup is due to start on 23 October, and would be a much-diminshed event without two of the world's leading teams.

With less than 100 days to go, Australia and New Zealand are concerned about the rising number cases of Covid-19 in the UK and believe it is unsafe to send their teams to the country, coupled with issues regarding Covid-19 regulations and quarantine rules for players and staff travelling back down under.

Australia's borders are currently closed, so anybody returning has to spend 14 days in government-managed quarantine.

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NZRL chief Greg Peters said: "The safety and wellbeing of our people is the main priority, and unfortunately, that cannot be guaranteed to our satisfaction.

"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. 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."

Peter V'landys, the ARLC chairman, added: "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.

"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. We have again requested the IRL and Rugby League World Cup consider postponing the event until 2022 to enable all players to participate."

Earlier this month, RLWC2021 confirmed the tournament would go ahead as planned in England later this year despite uncertainty over Australia’s participation at the time, with its domestic clubs also calling for to the event to be postponed.

The organisers opted to proceed with the tournament following talks with various governing bodies over participation, many of which had agreed to take part, bar Australia.

However, the official withdrawal of Australia, one of the competition’s top nations and holders of the men’s and women’s titles, and another major nation in New Zealand, is likely to cast doubt over whether the event will go ahead this year.

The organisers have expressed displeasure at the countries’ late decision to pull out of the tournament.

In a statement, RLWC2021 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."

When confirming that the tournament would go ahead as planned, Jon Dutton, chief executive of the organising committee, was “incredibly confident” that Australia would sign the participation agreement and send strong teams to take part in the three competitions.

The organising committee was also understood to have agreed to pay for charter flights for those travelling to minimise the risk of contact with the general public.

RLWC2021 are believed to be reluctant to postpone the tournament until 2022 as it would clash with soccer’s Fifa World Cup, which is to be held in Qatar in the northern hemisphere winter months of November and December.

The news is also likely to impact on the organisers’ efforts to land a significant broadcast contract in Australia.

RLWC2021 was understood to have been on the verge of announcing a rights deal in the country but the withdrawal of the team is likely to have deterred the major networks.

The withdrawal of New Zealand will also come as a huge blow to streaming service Spark Sport, which recently acquired domestic rights to the World Cup for the first time, displacing established rugby league broadcaster and pay-television operator Sky.