RUGBY league’s World Cup may be axed after Australia and New Zealand’s ‘cowardly’ decision to withdraw.
The defending champs and the powerhouse Kiwis piled the pressure on to organisers by refusing to travel to England this year, despite assurances that would have cost millions of pounds.
Now SunSport has learned early next week is set to see a decision – play on without them, described as ‘the least worst option,’ postpone until 2022 or cancel it completely.
Covid-19 concerns are the official reason for the double withdrawal and demand for a postponement, described as ‘pulling the rug from under athletes.’
But there is a strong suspicion among the game’s bosses over here the real reason is to keep clubs’ stars in as good a condition as they can for the next NRL season.
Concerns had even reached Prime Ministerial level, with Boris Johnson believed to have contacted Australian premier Scott Morrison before the shock decision.
One leading figure described the World Cup, scheduled to start with England v Samoa on October 23, as being ‘shafted publicly.’
Others believe it is not even the NRL acting on behalf of the defending champion Kangaroos, but clubs telling the NRL and Australian Rugby League Commission what to do.
Essentially, it is like Premier League clubs saying they do not want players to play at the Qatar World Cup and the FA crumbling and withdrawing England.
There is a chance some Australia and New Zealand players may appear for other nations they qualify for through ancestry.
However, SunSport understands the plug could be pulled completely, with several stakeholders – including the Government – holding the key.
England captain Sam Tomkins called the call 'strange' and Rugby Football League President Simon Johnson did not hold back, pointing out Australia’s rugby union team plays in Wales in October and athletes from both countries are in Tokyo for the Olympics.
He fumed: “This selfish, parochial and cowardly decision is one that needn’t have been taken.
“The World Cup board has bent over backwards and given assurance after assurance the tournament will be as safe as it will possibly be.
“They were comprehensive, bespoke and extremely well resourced relating to transport to and from the tournament, quarantine on return to Australia, biosecurity here. We've been talking to them for months, we’ve known and addressed all their concerns.
"Why is it those aren't good enough for rugby league authorities but they are for other sports? Each time we got moved towards them another set came in.
"The World Cup had consulted players and they wanted to come. This decision pulls the rug from under the feet of players who want to achieve the pinnacle of their sport. It’s not good enough to just say, ‘You can postpone it until next year.’ It’s not that easy.”
Despite the furious reaction, ARLC boss Peter Vlandys was adamant in saying: “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.”
New Zealand Rugby League chief exec Greg Peters added: “The safety and wellbeing of our people is the main priority, and unfortunately, that cannot be guaranteed to our satisfaction.”
Yet there is a chance organisers, who said every nation bar Australia had signed participation agreements for this year, could press on without two of the three tier one nations. USA have offered to take one place.
And delaying the tournament 12 months would put it up against the Commonwealth Games and football’s World Cup.
Government has already pledged £25 million of support and many fans want it to go ahead but the fear is the likes of Tonga, Fiji, Samoa, Cook Islands and Papua New Guinea, almost all of whose players play in Australian competitions, will follow suit.
World Cup organisers are biting their tongues hard over this snub, only saying they were told at, ‘very short notice that Australia and New Zealand will not be participating.’
Troy Grant, boss of International Rugby League, whose tournament the World Cup is, was less diplomatic.
He cursed: “I find it difficult to find the words that adequately describe my disappointment with that decision.
“Players are telling me they haven’t had the opportunity to make that decision for themselves. The RLPA has again committed to continue to work towards a 2021 tournament including Australian and New Zealand players who have dual eligibility and who are now keen to play for other nations.
“Whatever happens, my job as IRL chair is to pick up the pieces of international rugby league’s tarnished reputation as a result of these decisions.”
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