David Hinchliffe, the former secretary of the All Party Parliamentary Rugby League Group, suggests that we should demonstrate some understanding of why the Australians and New Zealanders have withdrawn from this year’s Rugby League World Cup
International Rugby League is the pinnacle of our great game and our World Cup represents the sport’s ultimate prize.
One of the main purposes of the move to a summer season, with the introduction of Super League, was the timing of our seasons alongside those of the Australians to enhance the opportunities for international competition. But the focus on the club game – both Down Under and here – has meant that precisely the opposite has happened.
While Rugby Union has expanded its international competition, and its profile as a consequence, Rugby League’s international programme has contracted markedly, with the game stagnating – if not declining – as a direct result.
Our sport desperately needs this year’s World Cup and the withdrawal of the Australian and New Zealand teams from it is undoubtedly a massive blow.
It is very encouraging that the RFL Chairman, Simon Johnson, has come out fighting on the issue, with an example of leadership that has for some time been lacking in the game.
My concern, however, is that his description of the Australian Rugby League Commission as “selfish, parochial and cowardly” misunderstands the extent to which other countries view the UK’s handling of Covid and have genuine reservations about their citizens coming here.
I have little doubt that the ARLC prioritises their NRL competition and Origin series over the national side playing internationals. But British Rugby League’s internationalism hardly shone through in its treatment of Toronto Wolfpack and I can think of at least one Super League club owner who has made absolutely clear his reluctance to release players for international duties.
Parochialism exists in both hemispheres, which is why we need to understand that health concerns have genuinely been a key additional factor playing a major part in these teams’ withdrawal.
The Australian and UK Governments have taken very different approaches to Covid.
I recall being particularly struck by the fact that a friend of mine visiting family in Australia, during March of 2020, was required to spend a fortnight in isolation there on arrival, some time before our first lockdown. At the same time, another friend returning to the UK from Spain, where Covid was rife, was astonished to find no formal health checks whatsoever on arrival in Manchester.
The Australian strategy has essentially been one of attempting to prevent the importation of the virus and we must understand that they have viewed with astonishment the way our approach directly led to the UK having one of the highest death rates per number of population in the world.
They have seen how subsequent delays in blocking arrivals from India contributed to the huge growth of the Delta variant and are understandably alarmed at the extent to which Covid continues to result in ongoing postponements of our Rugby League matches.
Ironically, the withdrawal of our two keenest rivals comes at a time when, because of breaches of their strict protocols, Covid cases in parts of Australia are rising while UK infection levels fall.
But, it is worth noting that a significant number of public health experts in this country fear that, following our so-called ‘Freedom Day’, with many still to be fully vaccinated, it is highly likely that UK levels will rise again in the Autumn when, of course, RLWC 2021 is scheduled to be played.
We are all incredibly anxious that the competition will go ahead, even without two key participants, but we need to fully appreciate that across the world this virus still rages and its repercussions are very far from over. Various agendas may be at play with these withdrawals, but misgivings over public health should not be belittled.
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