Simon Johnson expands on his criticism of the ARLC

RFL Chairman Simon Johnson has clarified his comments that were widely reported this morning, when he described the Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) as “selfish, parochial and cowardly” when the ARLC and the New Zealand Rugby League announced that they would not attend the Rugby League World Cup that will be held in England from October.

Johnson addressed a media conference earlier today and was happy to answer questions from journalists about what is likely to happen to the World Cup if the Australians and New Zealanders make good on their decision to withdraw, which is based on their concerns about player welfare, given the scale of the Covid pandemic in England.

“My reaction this morning reflects the disappointment of the decision,” said Johnson.

“The reason for that is that the World Cup board have bent over backwards to accommodate security and various other issues. They’ve given assurance after assurance that travelling to the tournament and participating will be safe. We’re in July right now, this tournament is in October and in the intervening period Australia and New Zealand are in Tokyo, Australia’s rugby union team will be in England. Why are assurances on safety not good enough for our sport?

“We’ve been talking to them for months, we’ve known all their concerns and I think we would have expected a bit more of a heads up, but that’s not the end of the world.”

And Johnson is convinced that the decision doesn’t reflect the desire of NRL players to take part in the World Cup.

“I don’t speak for the World Cup, but I’ve been seeing in the media that their players want to come,” he said.

“My concern here is this decision has been taken by the leadership and it pulls the rug under the feet of the athletes who want to play. Many are at the peak of their careers and want to try and win a World Cup and to take that away and postpone it to next year, that’s not good enough.

“It’s not just the men; what about the female and wheelchair athletes? If this is taken away from them, it might undermine the opportunity they’ve got to play at the pinnacle of their sport. We were going to give an unprecedented profile to those versions of the game, and they’re being denied the opportunity to grow the sport and participate on an equal footing with their male counterparts.”

And Johnson appears to believe that the options to either postpone or cancel the tournament are unrealistic, given the desire of the government for the tournament to go ahead in 2021.

“I know our Prime Minister has spoken to the Australian Prime Minister at least once about this and I expect those conversations to carry on,” he said.

“The Government is represented around the board of the World Cup, but our government wants this on in 2021. They want it to be a success and be a success for this country and for the cities and towns that are going to be hosting matches.

“We’re right in the window where we’re got to make a decision. It’s a decision for the World Cup board but none of the options are particularly palatable. It’s what is the least worst option. Going ahead without two of the semi-finalists in the last men’s tournament, that’s not ideal. Postponing to next year in a congested international schedule, with a Commonwealth Games next summer and the FIFA World Cup in November, when you don’t have access to stadiums that are hosting it this year. And cancellation will mean you’re taking it away from the players altogether.

“I’m not sure from a Covid perspective what’s going to be different in 2022 that isn’t here in autumn 2021. By that time Australia will have played a whole rugby union Test series here, the Olympics, Paralympics and Commonwealth Games will have happened, we’ll have full stadiums at football. I’m not sure what’s going to be different. The assurances the World Cup organisers gave were comprehensive, bespoke and extremely well-resourced. I’m not sure given we’re opening up whether things will be different. Personally, I don’t think postponing is a real option; if we don’t do it in 2021 there’s a chance it may not happen at all.”

And Johnson insists that the World Cup officials have given the Australians everything they asked for.

“The World Cup did everything; assurances were given regarding transport to and from the tournament, quarantine on the players’ return back to Australia and assurances regarding biosecurity and a whole range of assurances were given. I don’t want to go into ins and outs because that’s not fair, but I can tell you at considerable, multi-million-pound expense, World Cup organisers were giving assurances to everything that was asked for. My view that each time we moved towards them, another set of requests came in. This could go on forever. When it started to go quiet at their end, we started to fear the worst.

“The irony is that they’ve (Australia) just been awarded the Olympics and here they are, making a decision less than 24 hours later in which they undermine the future growth of women’s and wheelchair rugby league. These are versions of our game poised to take the next leap. They’ve been training because this was their moment. And the nation hosting the Olympics that believes Rugby League should be a sport in the 2032 games turns around within 24 hours saying it isn’t willing to participate at considerable expense to us?

“Whether we go ahead is one of the options the World Cup have to consider and who replaces the two nations. As for the NRL clubs, I think one of the reasons I used a word I did today is because the Australians haven’t been willing to face down the clubs. They’ve consistently said they don’t want their players to come because of quarantine at the end of the tournament and potentially coming back into pre-season later. They’ve never been happy. At the end of the day, what has been needed is for the International Rugby League (IRL) to say players want to come and we’re going to allow it. If a player is selected, clubs have to release them – there are rules in place – but clubs can make that difficult. I think it’s time everyone accepted this World Cup is happening. The Australian players want to retain their trophy.”

And Johnson doesn’t concede that the Australians have necessarily had the final word so far.

“Until the opening game kicks off I think there’ll be more twists and turns in this. This appears to be a final blow but I’m interested to hear what players and coaches are saying. I’m seeing signs that there is a backlash building in Australia.

“We are closely talking to government about this. They want it to go ahead in 2021 so I don’t have an answer right now. They’ve invested a huge amount already and a lot will depend on how we go forward. As for the ARLC and NZRL compensating us, I don’t think there’s any basis we can ask for that. The issue is that they’ve got to look their players in the eye and say sorry, we’re not going to let you come. We are not going to let you come and play in the World Cup and that’s a difficult message – I’m not sure that’s an easy one to pass off.

“We’ve known for a while that NRL clubs have been concerned about the World Cup and tried to flex their muscles, and to an extent they’ve succeeded. The power is there for the IRL and ARLC to enforce call-ups and I think this idea saying they’ve not received assurances on safety is just not my understanding of what’s gone on. The issue is that they’ve just not been prepared to advise the clubs on it.

“It’s not for me to speculate on the motives. A different decision could have been taken in the same circumstances and the ARLC received everything they need to hear. Why that message has not got across to the clubs enough, and why it is they feel they don’t want to permit their players to participate, I don’t know. They’re going to have to explain to their players that we are not coming.

“Going ahead will be the least-worst option in the sense that the matches will take place and tickets can be honoured and nothing needs to be renegotiated. It might impact ticket sales, or it might have the opposite effect. Postponement has a cost; there’s a cost of securing new stadiums, keeping the World Cup team running. I don’t know what that is but it isn’t cheap. Cancellation brings the potential of refunding everything. There is no option that is without cost implications.

“We’ve had long conversations with Government. They’ve given us assurances and I don’t want to comment on what will happen. So far, the Government has been clear that they don’t want there to be a financial detriment to our sport.“