Australia and New Zealand will not compete at this year’s Rugby League World Cup in England due to player welfare and safety concerns linked to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) and New Zealand Rugby League (NZRL) have today (Thursday) informed the International Rugby League (IRL) and the World Cup organising committee of their decision.

The ARLC and NZRL have again requested that the tournament be postponed until 2022 to minimise the risk of players contracting COVID-19 and ensure the “best outcome for player wellbeing”.

In a brief statement, the tournament organising committee noted the “disappointing” statement made by the ARLC and NZRL, which it feels may have “wide-ranging implications” for international rugby league. RLWC2021 said it was informed at “very short notice” and organisers are set to make a full statement in due course.

The decision comes after organisers of the World Cup confirmed last week that the event would go ahead as scheduled from October 23 to November 27.

Despite the announcement, defending champion Australia had still not agreed to take part. Jon Dutton, chief executive of the tournament organising committee, said last week that organisers were “incredibly confident” that Australia would sign a participation agreement but this has not been the case.

The ARLC said that its decision to withdraw comes after considering the risk of COVID-19 infection in the UK, the worsening environment in Australia and the time a majority of NRL players will spend away from home under strict biosecurity conditions prior to the World Cup.

The ARLC and NZRL have ultimately decided that the present environment presents too great a risk for athletes and officials to travel to the UK for the tournament.

ARLC chairman Peter V’landys said: “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.

“The majority of NRL players are currently living away from home under difficult biosecurity protocols. They would then be required to remain under protocols and away from home for the duration of the tournament before again quarantining on return to Australia. This is too much to ask our players and officials to do.

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

NZRL chief executive Greg Peters added: “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.  

“We understand how disappointing this is for fans and those involved; however player and staff safety remains paramount.”

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