Australia spoils England’s rugby party


Rugby League World Cup postponed Image: Rugby League World Cup

This year’s Rugby League World Cup – scheduled to be held in England – has been postponed until 2022 after the withdrawal of champions Australia and New Zealand over the rise of Delta variant cases in the United Kingdom.

The postponement has come as a major blow to English rugby league, a sport that has been hit hard by the financial fallout of the pandemic.

The UK Government has provided rugby league with more than £32m in loan support in the past year.

‘BBC Sport’ stated that the two countries pulled out of the tournament citing “player welfare and safety concerns” related to COVID-19.

The Rugby League World Cup is an international rugby league tournament contested by the top men’s national teams. The tournament is administered by the International Rugby League and was first held in France in 1954, which was the first World Cup held for any form of rugby football.

The 2021 Rugby League World Cup was supposed to be the 16th staging of the Rugby League World Cup and will now be held in England in 2022.

The World Cup, featuring men’s, women’s and wheelchair events, was set to start in Newcastle (UK) on October 23rd.

Said Jon Dutton, Chief Executive of the tournament, “It became unfeasible and irresponsible for us to carry on. I think it will take some time for international rugby league to recover from this. I hope we can be a beacon of light. Certainly we’ve prioritized player voice and player choice, we know the players want to play, we took our responsibilities very seriously, and we are determined to stage the biggest and best ever rugby league World Cup.”

Added Dutton, “It’s a real shame that it cannot be held this year but leadership is about making tough decisions, it’s about being responsible, and we’ve done this in the best interests of not just the tournament but of the sport of rugby league.”

Beyond the pale

The ‘BBC Sport’ further stated that organizers were given only four minutes’ notice that the Antipodean (relating to Australia or New Zealand) neighbors intended to pull out on July 22nd, with Rugby Football League (RFL) Chairman Simon Johnson calling it a “selfish, parochial and cowardly decision”.

Dutton last week gave it a “50-50” chance of going ahead as scheduled this year after discussions with the Board and numerous stakeholders, including players.

“There’s been some really disappointing behavior,” added Dutton when asked about whether Australia, New Zealand and the National Rugby League (NRL) had called the shots.

He asserted, “We can’t end up in this position again and we’ll make sure we don’t.”

Leeds (UK)-headquartered the Rugby Football League is the governing body for professional rugby league in England. The name Rugby Football League previously also referred to the main league competition run by the organization. This has since been supplanted by Super League, the Championship and League 1.

The National Rugby League (NRL) is Australia’s top-level domestic men’s rugby league club competition. It contains clubs from the original Sydney club Rugby League competition, which had been running continuously since 1908. A single team from New Zealand also plays in the league.

Delaying the World Cup by a year could mean it clashes with the football equivalent to be held in Qatar in 2022, but Dutton said a window will be found to avoid such a scenario.

Said Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston, “I am disappointed that we’ve needed to take the decision to delay the Rugby League World Cup. Despite working tirelessly to explore solutions that would allow us to go ahead as planned, circumstances beyond our control have meant that postponing the Rugby League World Cup (RLWC) until next year is the strongest option for staging a successful tournament.”

The Rugby League Players’ Association (RLPA) said it acknowledged “the extremely difficult decision” to delay the World Cup and the “tremendous effort of the RLWC board, Jon Dutton, and the entire team to maintain the tournament’s viability up to this point”.

Remarked RLPA Chief Executive Officer Clint Newton, “We have worked exceptionally close with the RLWC team to date and want to thank them for engaging in such a collaborative process which has allowed the players to feel respected and valued throughout the RLWC planning.”

The Rugby League Players’ Association is a representative organization based in Australia. The RLPA, as it is more commonly referred to, is the representative body of elite rugby league players, protecting and promoting the welfare and interests of its members.

Fresh COVID outbreaks in Australia have forced most States in the country to reimpose restrictions, while the majority of coronavirus restrictions in England have been lifted despite a significant rise in Delta numbers.

COVID constraints

There were concerns about players and staff having to quarantine for 14 days on their return to Australia, with the country’s borders currently closed as the Delta variant of the virus has again put the world on the edge.

Rugby league officials estimate about 400-500 players, staff and team officials from Australia’s National Rugby League – representing several different countries – would be impacted by any quarantine measures on their return to the country after the tournament.

Those measures would mean players would only return to their NRL clubs two weeks before trial games for the start of the 2022 season.

The number of those who would be affected is significantly higher when the women’s and wheelchair events are taken into consideration.

Australia, as 11-time and defending men’s champions, were favorites to win the tournament in England, while 2008 winners New Zealand were again poised to be contenders.

The event, regarded as one of the most inclusive sports events ever hosted in Britain, was to be staged across 16 towns and Cities across England.

The 52,405-capacity St James’ Park in Newcastle upon Tyne (UK), home of Premier League football side Newcastle United, was scheduled to host the opening game between England and Samoa (a country in Oceania continent).

The Premier League team Manchester United F.C.’s home – the 76,000-capacity Old Trafford Stadium in Greater Manchester (UK) was to host the men’s and women’s finals in a back-to-back spectacle on November 27th.

Ruling the roost

Australia’s NRL clubs have got their way and have almost ruled the roost as far as postponing the rugby spectacle is concerned.

The postponement seemed inevitable once they decided, through the voice piece of the Australian Rugby League Commission, that they didn’t want to allow their players to compete in a World Cup in England this year.

The Australian Rugby League Commission is the official governing body of rugby league football within Australia. It was founded as the Australian Rugby League ‘Board of Control’ in 1924 jointly by the New South Wales Rugby League and the Queensland Rugby League.

The bigger picture

The risk of players being exposed to the virus in the United Kingdom is a genuine reason to be concerned about though the RLWC2021 organizers had pulled out all stops to ensure that protocols would have been in place to keep the tournament as safe as possible.

But at the heart of this is that those NRL clubs have only self-interest. They want to protect their own domestic competition going into the 2022 season, rather than seeing the bigger picture of what a World Cup could do for the international profile of the game.

It’s to be hoped they will keep their words when they say they will support a rearranged Rugby League World Cup.

With the number of COVID cases in Australia not yet reaching the numbers seen in other countries, and with their vaccine rollout program a long way behind schedule, it’s hard to gauge how badly the pandemic will hit that country in 2022. And indeed, whether a dramatic spike in cases over the next few months will again make them think twice to send players abroad.

In the meantime, some more incredibly hard work begins for the Rugby League World Cup organizers.

Stadia will have to be rebooked. Cities and towns where the Men’s, Women’s and Wheelchair teams were going to be based will have to be reprimed in readiness for the delayed event. Broadcasters will have to reschedule.

This year’s tournament had been over four years in the planning up to this point. Now they have to do a lot of the work again, but this time with less than 14 months to go.

Finances will be stretched because budgets were only due to run up to the end of November of this year and the Government will be called upon to add to the £25m that it’s already invested into the tournament.

But in the circumstances of the last few weeks, and the stance of the NRL clubs, Jon Dutton, the RLWC2021 Chief Executive and his Board of Directors, had little option but to call a halt to their desperate hard work to get the tournament on as planned.

Going by the present global pandemic situation, it’s now fingers crossed for 2022!

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