The fury is palpable at the Rugby Football League over the decision by the Australians and New Zealanders to pull out of the World Cup in England.
And the organisers of the showpiece, due to take place in October, have no intention of taking it lying down and launched an immediate and withering counter offensive.
Despite the joint statement form the Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) and New Zealand Rugby League (NZRL) declaring their withdrawal from the competition due to Covid safety concerns, the organisers do not believe the game is up.
The hooter has not sounded. The view from these shores is that the Australia and NZ have stripped their own players of the chance to test themselves on the world stage; they have taken away the opportunity for them to make their own decisions.
Australia and New Zealand have said they will pull out of the Rugby League World Cup
And the hope is that those players who want to, will yet be allowed to come to England for the showpiece in three months.
There is little doubt in England – or Australia – that the devastating announcement to pull out is motivated by the self-interest of the highly lucrative, National Rugby League.
It is believed the big Aussie clubs are flexing their muscles and putting their own interests front and centre, because they want their players ready and raring to go for the new domestic season.
Returning players would miss a chunk of pre-season training with their NRL clubs due to the 14-day quarantine period imposed by the Australian government.
Reigning champions Australia (pictured) have won the competition eight times and NZ once
As a result, it’s felt the NRL has forced the hand of the Australian Rugby League Commission – and the Kiwis have just tagged along.
There is dismay that the Australian governing body ‘bowed down’ to the pressure, even though their stated concerns were being diligently addressed.
That’s what lay behind the chairman of the Rugby Football League, Simon Johnson’s, succinct and almost instant analysis that the move was ‘cowardly, parochial and selfish’.
‘There was hope that the governing body would stand up to clubs, but they bowed down,’ a Rugby League source told Sportsmail.
‘It is the self-interest and power of the NRL. They are head and shoulders bigger than anyone else in the game. They have been trying to stop it behind the scenes for months.’
Australian rugby league star James Tedesco (left) and the Kiwis’ Benji Marshall are among the players who will not be taking part in this year’s tournament after their countries’ sporting authorities pulled out
STATEMENT FROM ARLC AND NZRL
The Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) and New Zealand Rugby League (NZRL) issued a joint statement today announcing they would withdraw from the 2021 Rugby League World Cup.
‘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,’ said ARLC chairman Peter V’landys.
‘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 to consider postponing the event until 2022 to enable all players to participate.’
NZRL chief executive, Greg Peters, added: ‘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.’
A statement from the Rugby League World Cup said: ‘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.’
In their joint statement, World Cup holders Australia and one-time winners New Zealand cited player welfare and safety concerns and urged the tournament to be postponed until 2022 to avoid the risk of a player catching Covid-19.
The statement jarred with the fact that both countries have had, do have and will have men and women playing sport overseas, including in the UK during the ongoing pandemic. The Wallabies, the Australia Rugby Union team, is due in Wales in October and the nation’s athletes are competing at the Tokyo Olympics.
Not to mention the fact that Australian Rugby League’s own performance on Covid safety is a shambles, with multiple players fined for serious breaches of the rules (see panel).
No wonder, Johnson and his colleagues are convinced the announcement has more to do with the quarantine arrangements back home.
Half Australia is in lockdown despite a stringent border shutdown and cases are rising – although they still remain far below the numbers seen in the UK. New Zealand has also seen very few Covid cases
Prime Minister Boris Johnson (right) poses with the Rugby League World Cup trophy last week as excitement grew during the build-up to the tournament
Every demand from down-under has been met by the Rugby League World Cup to date, including secure bubbles, transport and charters to bring players and staff from the southern hemisphere, at considerable expense. And the tournament is still three months away.
COVID BREACHES IN AUSSIE RUGBY LEAGUE
The National Rugby League in Australia has been beset by Covid rule breaches.
Today, Daily Mail Australia reported State of Origin debutant Apisai Koroisau endangered the entire NRL competition by smuggling a woman he met online into the players’ hotel.
The Penrith Panthers hooker is under investigation after he allegedly snuck the woman into the Blues camp on June 20- one day before the team was moved to Kingscliff, in northern NSW, to escape Sydney’s rampant Covid outbreak.
Meanwhile, Queensland Maroons player Jai Arrow was scrubbed out of game three after inviting a ‘dancer’ to his hotel room.
The South Sydney Rabbitohs star was thrown out of State of Origin camp on the spot when authorities were notified of the breach on July 8, and later copped a $35,000 fine.
On July 3, 13 St George-Illawarra Dragons players were involved in an illegal house party that breached Sydney’s strict Covid Public Health Orders and NRL biosecurity protocols.
The NRL issued a total of $305,000 in fines over the incident, in which controversial star Jack de Belin hid under a bed to escape authorities while Matt Dufty and Corey Norman fled on foot.
The party’s host, Dragons player Paul Vaughan, was sacked from his $800,000 contract after the club considered it his second Covid breach and third strike.
Sportsmail understands no new concerns had been raised prior to the explosive events of this morning, which unfolded over 29 minutes, culminating in the publication of a pre prepared media statement and the announcement to withdraw.
‘That’s when you see the real motives,’ said a source. ‘They want players in pre-season training.’
The tournament organisers received a WhatsApp message just before 7am today, which was followed by a conversation at 7.15am. A second WhatsApp landed at 7.26am with a four-minute warning that the Australians and New Zealanders were about to publish their explosive statement.
Less than an hour later, Johnson was in full flight on BBC Radio Four’s Today programme.
‘This selfish, parochial and cowardly decision is one that need not have been taken because the Rugby League World Cup organisers have bent over backwards to offer every assurance to the Australians and Kiwis,’ he said.
‘We are not prepared to take it lying down,’ declared Johnson.
The truth is that the news of the Aussie and Kiwi withdrawal was not a bombshell moment for the organisers. There was always a risk after Australia refused to sign a participation agreement and there has been suspicion of the NRL throughout.
‘The NRL have never been keen to come,’ said one source and ‘we have accommodated every request,’ said another.
There is a realistic assessment from the Rugby League World Cup that some Australian and New Zealand players will not want to travel to the UK because of concerns over Covid, which officials are quick to accept in good faith.
However, the move by the two governing bodies has apparently been made without detailed consultation with the players and risks denying all of them the opportunity.
‘They have unilaterally decided no players can go to the World Cup,’ said an insider.
The hope now is some of those who want to play will make their voices heard and teams from both nations may yet take the field in October.
A number of Australian stars including James Tedesco, Damien Cook and Christian Welch had said in the previous week they would be willing to play for the Kangaroo
New South Wales Blues’ Origin hooker, Damian Cook, may well be at the front of the queue.
James Tedesco and Damien Cook pay for New South Wales Blues, who won the Origin trophy, but could miss the tournament where they were expected to play starring roles
‘Look, it is going to be a long time away from home, but I’m not passing up the opportunity to possibly be a part of the World Cup that is for sure,’ he told Zero Tackle this week. ‘The opportunity to play in a World Cup if I was selected, I’d want to be a part of it.
‘I understand they have to go through the right things to make sure they protect the players, but if it is a chance to go to the World Cup and I’m picked, I would be wanting to go over there.’
And the pressure to salvage something from the wreckage will come from far and wide.
International Rugby League chairman Troy Grant said he found it ‘difficult to find the words that adequately describe my disappointment with [Australia and New Zealand’s] decision’. He said the call would ‘significantly compromise’ the tournament.
‘The next week will be critical but despite whatever happens, my job as International Rugby League chair is to pick up the pieces of international rugby league’s tarnished reputation as a result of these decisions when quite clearly other sports have demonstrated their ability to run events during the pandemic, both in England and in other countries with equal challenges from the pandemic, including Australian and New Zealand representation,’ Grant said.
The UK government has already been engaged in a serious diplomatic effort with the Australians to help facilitate their team’s participation in the competition and efforts will now be redoubled.
‘Extremely surprising and disappointing decision from the ARLC and NZRL,’ tweeted Sports Minister Nigel Huddlestone this morning.
‘We’ve met all requests made and shown that elite sports players can be kept safe. We will work with the RLWC team to seek clarity on what new assurances were requested, if any, before this press release was issued unexpectedly today.
‘Their decision risks depriving the world – including Australian and New Zealand rugby fans – of a superb spectacle of sport’