HOLDERS Australia and New Zealand have withdrawn from the World Cup amid Covid-related concerns over player welfare and safety.
The tournament, taking in men’s, women’s and wheelchair competitions, is due to start on Saturday, October 23.
The Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) and New Zealand Rugby League (NZRL) have asked organisers if it can be rescheduled for 2022.
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.
“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 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.”
Organisers only confirmed that the tournament would go ahead earlier this month, although eleven-times winners Australia did not sign the participation agreement.
Concerns had previously been raised over quarantine rules for players and staff travelling back to Australia and New Zealand.
Australia’s borders are currently closed, so anyone returning has to spend 14 days in government-managed quarantine.
The tournament organisers said in a statement: “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.”