Australia and New Zealand have pulled out of the Rugby League World Cup because of “player welfare and safety concerns” related to Covid-19.
The men’s, women’s and wheelchair events are scheduled to take place in England this autumn.
The Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) and New Zealand Rugby League (NZRL) have asked organisers if it can be rescheduled for 2022.
NZRL chief Greg Peters said it was “simply too unsafe” to take part.
“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.”
ARLC chairman Peter V’landys added: “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.”
About half of Australia’s population has been placed back into lockdown following a spike in Covid-19 cases, with stay-at-home orders now in place in South Australia, Victoria and parts of New South Wales.
That is in sharp contrast to England, with the majority of coronavirus restrictions now lifted.
Organisers only confirmed that the tournament would go ahead earlier this month, although Australia, the holders and 11-time winners, did not sign the participation agreement.
One of the issues previously raised is Covid-19 regulations and 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.
There are reports that Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL) teams want the tournament postponed to next year because those regulations mean players would only return to their clubs two weeks before trial games for the 2022 NRL season begin.
Rugby league officials estimate around 400-500 players, staff and team officials from NRL sides, representing several different countries, would be involved in the World Cup.
Speaking to BBC Radio 5 Live’s Rugby League podcast earlier this month RLWC2021 chief executive Jon Dutton said he was “respectful” of the challenges currently facing Australia and the NRL but was “incredibly confident” they would sign the participation agreement.
He added that cancellation and postponement to 2022 were options but the latter was “significantly unpalatable” with the men’s football World Cup, the women’s European Championships and the Commonwealth Games taking place next year.
A statement from the tournament organisers read: “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.”
More to follow.