By Tariq Saleh
The organisers of the Rugby League World Cup 2021 have today confirmed the tournament will go ahead as planned in England later this year despite uncertainty over Australia’s participation, with its domestic clubs calling for to the event to be postponed.
RLWC2021 will proceed with the tournament this autumn following talks with various governing bodies over participation, many of which have agreed to take part, bar Australia, one of the competition’s top nations and holders of the men’s and women’s titles.
The World Cup is due to start on 23 October with England facing Samoa in the opening game in Newcastle.
Jon Dutton, chief executive of the organising committee, told the BBC that Australia have not signed the Rugby League World Cup participation agreement despite today’s announcement that the tournament will take place as scheduled.
However, the tournament chief said he is “incredibly confident they will sign the agreement and send strong teams across all three competitions".
With 100 days to go until the start of the World Cup, Australia are concerned about the rising number of coronavirus cases in the UK, as well as issues regarding Covid-19 regulations and quarantine rules for players and staff travelling back to Australia and New Zealand.
Australia's borders are currently closed, so anybody returning will have to spend 14 days in government-managed quarantine.
The clubs from the domestic National Rugby League believe the World Cup should be postponed for 12 months because of the logistical complications of flying up to 500 players, staff and officials to and from the UK.
The organising committee is understood to have agreed to pay for charter flights for those travelling to minimise the risk of contact with the general public but that has not appeased the Australian clubs.
Blake Solly, chief executive of the NRL’s South Sydney Rabbitohs told the UK's Guardian newspaper: “There is a great amount of respect for Jon [Dutton] and his team. But the NRL clubs have a range of concerns; from travel to and from the UK, the arrangements and protocols for players in the UK, quarantine upon their return and when the players return to training.
“The collective view when we discussed the tournament a few weeks ago was that it needed to be postponed until 2022.”
Despite the concerns, RLWC2021 today announced the event will still be held this year, saying the organisers “have worked relentlessly to provide certainty and clarity by tackling the significant challenges presented by the pandemic".
Dutton said: “We are delighted to be able to provide clarity and certainty to fans, players, partners, media and those that have supported our journey over the past few years. We have an overwhelming desire to deliver the biggest and best ever Rugby League World Cup and through our determination and decisiveness we will be able to achieve this vision.
“We recognise there are still many challenges ahead, but we will work relentlessly and will take the most extraordinary measures with the support of all involved to stage the tournament in 100 days’ time.”
The organisers are 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.
RLWC2021 has already secured several key broadcast contracts, domestically and internationally, as well as a host of sponsors.
All matches will be shown in the UK by public-service broadcaster BBC, while a significant agreement was recently struck with streaming service Spark Sport in New Zealand.
An announcement over a rights deal in Australia was expected to be made last month but may well have been delayed by the uncertainty over the country’s participation and strength of the teams they will send for the multiple competitions.
The World Cup will feature 61 games involving 32 national teams from the men's, women's and wheelchair tournaments, which will run concurrently for the first time, until 27 November.
This will be the largest men's Rugby League World Cup with 16 nations, two more than in 2017, with Jamaica and Greece making their tournament debuts.