All 16 National Rugby League clubs have backed Australia and New Zealand’s decision to pull out of the World Cup as they scramble to safeguard their domestic season.
The NRL is the most wealthy and powerful league in the international game and it is flexing its muscles now, as players push for the chance to attend the showpiece tournament in England.
The clubs’ chief executives have issued a statement calling for the tournament to be postponed until 2022 and pressure is mounting on players not to attend, regardless of which nation they would represent.
Among the concerns expressed by the executives is the risk of player catching Covid in England and being stranded there.
Australia and New Zealand are the best two sides in the world, but they could be replaced
The competition, which is due to begin on October 23, hangs in the balance after the Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) and New Zealand Rugby League (NZRL) announced last week, they were withdrawing due to concerns over Covid and player welfare.
However, the decision was taken without any serious consultation with the players of those countries, who are now looking at their options to represent the other nations they qualify for, or Indigenous and Maori All-Star teams.
And it is not just the Aussies and Kiwis, who are affected.
Scores of international players perform in the NRL and also represent a host of countries, including England, Tonga, Samoa and Fiji. It now appears the clubs could refuse to release them, too.
Australia’s Indigenous All-Stars are on the charge to play at the Rugby League World Cup, but the NRL clubs are reluctant to release players for the tournament in England
‘They are using every excuse under the sun,’ a rugby league official told Sportsmail. ‘They thought they could kill the tournament by Australia and New Zealand pulling out, but that has not happened.
£5 MILLION TO KEEP NRL PLAYERS SAFE
Organisers of the Rugby League World Cup have pledged to spend £5 million to secure the safety of Australian-based players and staff at the autumn tournament, Sportsmail revealed
The £5 million package includes seven charter flights to and from the UK – 14 in all – for up to 400 players and officials from different countries, who compete in the National Rugby League in Australia.
This would have included representatives of the Australia and New Zealand teams, but will also provide for Tongan, Fijian and even English players and staff.
The exact protocols have been set out in a 75-page document produced by the tournament and shared with the 16 participating nations. It includes safe and comfortable quarantine arrangements for the participants on their return to Australia.
‘They have panicked and now want to stop all players going to the World Cup. The World Cup does not suit the NRL’s commercial agenda.’
The World Cup organisers have been careful to tone down rhetoric after initially calling the Australians and New Zealanders ‘selfish, parochial and cowardly’ for abandoning the tournament.
But there is genuine anger at how the rugby league authorities have behaved down under.
Sportsmail understands detailed conversations have been ongoing with chairman of the ALRC Peter V’Landys, chief executive of the NZRL Greg Peters and NRL chief executive Andrew Abdo since July last year, only for them to pull out last week, giving the organisers four minutes notice.
The stance of the players is now crucial.
High-profile individuals, including James Tedesco, who captains the Sydney Roosters, Melbourne Storm winger Josh Addo-Carr, Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks prop Andrew Fifita, North Queensland Cowboys second row Jason Tamaulolo and South Sydney Rabitohs forward Tom Burges, have all said they want to play in the competition.
On Thursday, the World Cup organisers announced, with the support of the Rugby League Players’ Association, they will survey participants on their plans raising the prospect of club versus country conflicts throughout the NRL.
All of this has forced the ARLC, NZRL and the NRL onto the back foot – and to the surprise of no one, they’ve come out fighting.
Friday’s NRL clubs’ statement didn’t explicitly state players would not be allowed to feature in the tournament, but gave every indication that clubs would not support them going to the UK.
Rugby League World Cup chief executive Jon Dutton (left) paraded the trophy at Downing Street with Prime Minister Boris Johnson before the Australian and New Zealand withdrawals
The statement said postponement was in the ‘best interests of player health, safety, wellbeing and the international game’.
SAFETY PROTOCOLS FOR THE WORLD CUP
Organisers of the Rugby League World Cup have published the steps they are taking to keep players and officials safe before, during and after the tournament.
Since so many players from different nations are based in Australia, the World Cup committee will create a hub from which teams can be transferred to England.
Players and staff will be supported and provided with Covid tests, an invitation to be vaccinated and permissions will be obtained to leave and re-enter Australia.
Charter flights with socially distanced seating will take participants to the UK, where there will be fast-track entry to the country and private transport to hotels.
On match days, red zones will restrict access to player areas, similar to arrangements in the Premier League.
In the UK, teams will have use of exclusive areas of their hotels, they will not be ‘locked down’, there will be outdoor activities and the opportunity to attend restaurants for private dining.
Charter flights will be provided to fly players and staff home, within two days of their final game and back in Australia there will be ‘enhanced’ quarantine, with access to training facilities and the opportunity to move around a dedicated hotel.
‘The support not to play is based on the high COVID-19 infection rate in the United Kingdom and onerous biosecurity and quarantine protocols that would be placed on all players having just completed a lengthy period away from home during the NRL Telstra Premiership,’ it added.
‘The 16 clubs support the World Cup being delayed until 2022 where it is expected there will be less risk to player health and safety and a stronger competition.’
World Cup organisers have made clear that postponement is problematic since the tournament would then clash with other international events, including the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, impacting on broadcast agreements and commercial agreements.
Ordinarily, clubs are bound to release players for representative duties as part of their license agreement with the NRL.
However that is not expected to be enforced this World Cup after the ARLC’s decision to pull the Kangaroos from the tournament.
It means clubs would have the power to tell their players they do not want them to participate.
Canberra Raiders chief executive Don Furner, speaking on behalf of NRL club CEOs, said on Friday: ‘We want the players to come home healthy. There are two massive challenges here, the UK infection rate is increasing, with the two countries being at different stages of vaccination levels and approach to dealing with the virus.
‘Secondly, there are several unknowns in terms of the process and protocols for players who may get exposed to COVID-19 locations and how that may disrupt the tournament, and safe passage home for players without significant risk in terms of isolation and quarantine requirements.’
Meanwhile, South Sydney Rabbitohs CEO Blake Solly indicated the Australian clubs are concerned about the integrity of their domestic league.
‘The NRL and its clubs have gone to great lengths and invested heavily to ensure our players remain healthy and the competition continues,’ he told the Australian Associated Press.
Reigning champions Australia (pictured) and NZ have pulled out of Rugby League World Cup
And some clubs, like Penrith Panthers, are already telling players they don’t want them to go.
‘I wouldn’t be comfortable (with them playing),’ head coach Ivan Cleary told ZeroTackle.
‘I think the ARL, the NRL and the NZRL have made a really brave but smart decision in this instance.
‘But in terms of player welfare, there’s too many risks and all things considered, I think the right decision has been made.’
The Rugby League World Cup, which will receive £25 million of UK Government funding, has gone to great lengths to secure the safety of players travelling to the tournament from Australia.
Players’ union general president Daly Cherry-Evans said Australian players were not consulted on plans by the governing body to withdraw from the World Cup in England
Some £5 million has been pledged for charter flights, enhanced quarantine arrangements on return, as well as secure travel in the UK.
One of the concerns discussed by the clubs was around players contracting Covid during the tournament and being unable to return on a team charter flight.
In these circumstances the player would have come home at a later date on a scheduled service, but flights between the UK and Australia have been restricted.
Tongan and North Queensland forward Jason Taumalolo is determined to go to World Cup
Sources told the Sydney Morning Herald that the chief executives also expressed fears that players would not observe Covid protocols while on tour – there have been high profile bubble breaches in the NRL this season.
And the anti-vaccination beliefs held by some players was also debated.
Players in the NRL have been confined to bio secure bubbles for an extended period in order to safeguard the competition. The majority of the players are forced to live away from home.
Even so, many payers want to go to the World Cup and there is widespread scepticism about the Australian and New Zealand motivations.
‘I don’t believe the motivation for not participating in this tournament to be Covid or player welfare,’ the former St Helens forward, James Graham, who was also a highly respected NRL player for eight years, told the Press Association earlier this week.
Meanwhile, Josh Kerr, a prop for St. George Illawarra Dragons in the NRL, is the latest player to come out and state his desire to play in the World Cup, calling on the Australian rugby authorities to sanction an Indigenous All-Star team.
Melbourne Storm winger Josh Addo-Carr has spoken to the NRL about releasing players
‘Lo and behold, Australia and New Zealand pull out of the World Cup, and straight away on our group chat it was, ‘how good would that idea be if we can put it forward?’ he told the broadcaster ABC.
‘Next thing, it sort of caught fire and every man and his dog wanted to jump onboard.’
Kerr also said the opportunity to represent his culture outweighed any concerns surrounding the pandemic.
‘A lot of people wouldn’t understand that, they are worried about COVID … but straight away all the boys were super keen because they know what it means for our community and our people,’ he said.
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.’