Rugby league: Champions Australia, NZ withdraw from World Cup citing welfare, safety concerns

The 2013 Rugby League World Cup final between Australia and New Zealand at Old Trafford in Manchester, England.
The 2013 Rugby League World Cup final between Australia and New Zealand at Old Trafford in Manchester, England.PHOTO: AFP

MELBOURNE (REUTERS) - Defending champions Australia and New Zealand withdrew from the Rugby League World Cup in England on Thursday (July 22), citing player welfare and safety concerns amid the Covid-19 pandemic in a massive blow for the sport's global showpiece.

The Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) and New Zealand Rugby League (NZRL) said they had repeated a request to organisers to postpone the Oct 23-Nov 27 event until 2022 to "minimise risk of players contracting Covid-19".

"The decision to withdraw from the RLWC2021 comes after considering the risk of COVID-19 infection in the United Kingdom, the worsening environment in Australia and the time a majority of NRL (National Rugby League) players will spend away from home under strict bio-security conditions prior to the World Cup," they said in a joint statement.

Organisers said they were informed at "very short notice" and would continue discussions with stakeholders to agree on the best way forward.

"RLWC2021 note the disappointing statement made by the ARLC and NZRL which may have wide ranging implications for international Rugby League," organisers said in a statement.

Covid-19 infections are increasing in the UK, with 47,114 new infections reported on average each day. The country has recorded 5.5 million confirmed cases and 128,896 total deaths, according to a Reuters tally.

Australia is also battling outbreaks of Covid-19 albeit on a much smaller scale. Around 13 million people, or half the country's population, are under strict lockdown.

Australia's "Kangaroos" have dominated the World Cup for decades, winning eight out of the last nine editions dating back to the 1970s.

New Zealand, whose top players also compete in the NRL, won the 2008 World Cup hosted by Australia.