Australia and New Zealand pull out of Rugby League World Cup
The coronavirus pandemic has rocked the sporting world, with several major tournaments delayed by a year and scaled down in size. But fans were still not prepared for the news that Australia and New Zealand had pulled out from participating in this year’s Rugby League World Cup.
The teams cited rising Covid cases in the UK, this year’s host country for the World Cup, as a reason for pulling out. In a statement, NZRL chief Greg Peters stated it was “too unsafe” for the teams to take part, citing the difference in how the Australasian nations have handled the pandemic compared to Britain, where restrictions fully eased on July 19.
The news was a particular shock because Australia are both defending champions, after winning the 2017 event, and the most successful team in world cup history, with 11 wins, while New Zealand winning the 2008 event. Now, crisis talks are being held to ensure the event can take place with all teams in place between October 23 and November 27, 2021.
Australia was set to compete in Group B alongside Fiji, Scotland and Italy, while New Zealand were set to play in Group C alongside Lebanon, Jamaica and Ireland.
The other two groups were Group A, with England, France, Samoa and Greece, and Group D with Tonga, Papua New Guinea, Wales and Cook Islands. The event was rocked by the news, as organisers were only given four minutes’ notice before the decision was announced to the press.
In all, 18 stadiums will be used to host matches at the 2021 Rugby League World Cup, including Anfield, St James Park, Emirates Stadium, Elland Road and the 75,000-capacity Old Trafford, where the Final will be played.
The teams made the decision to pull out purely due to health and safety reasons, with team management not sure they could ensure the safety of their players as cases rose in host country England. England's Rugby Football League chairman Simon Johnson responded by calling it a "selfish, parochial and cowardly decision”. He questioned the decision as Australia currently have athletes participating in the Tokyo Olympics, the Australian cricket team is currently on tour in the West Indies and the Wallabies are set to travel to Wales in October, while the New Zealand cricket team recently departed England following their matches in June.
Organisers are keen to stress that they are following all protocols to ensure a safe event, for both fans and the players. They claim to be following the lead of other major sporting events to have taken place in the UK so far this year, such as the Euro 2020 tournament and Wimbledon.
However, both teams have insisted they will not be sending players to either the men, women or wheelchair events hosted in England, although talks are still continuing. And it should be noted that there is a growing backlash to the hasty decision made by both teams.
A poll of Australia’s players union found 75% of players were happy to travel to England to compete. Additionally, backlash has been growing among the country’s fans, who want to see the team retain their title.
This is far from the first time Covid-19 has had an impact on a major sporting event. After a wave of cancellations last year, the world adjusted to a new normal, with no fans in stadiums to cheer on their teams.
And while fans are now back cheering on teams at full or near-full capacity, such as the recent Euro’s games in England, in other nations severe restrictions are still in place. Concerns over rising Covid cases in Japan have ensured there are no spectators at this year’s Olympics - with a high proportion of the Japanese public angry over what they believe is the government prioritising the Olympics over the country’s health.
But things are slowly getting back to normal, just not at a rate fast enough for rugby fans in Australia and New Zealand. Fans in the two countries were amongst the first in the world to be welcomed back into stadiums in late 2020, with rugby matches the first to welcome back spectators.
In Australia, rugby league is traditionally one of the most popular sports. In the year prior to the Covid lockdown, a total of 3,176,561 spectators attended NRL matches, with an average of 15,804 per game.
In New Zealand, rugby union is the most popular sport of all, with 64% of Kiwis claiming to be interested in the sport, compared to the 45% invested in football. Tens of thousands of people in each country play rugby, and the fan culture is immense too.
Stadiums are regularly full, and many Australian fans usually place a bet on their favourite teams to win. It’s no surprise that so many fans are pleading for their national teams to be reinstated in the world cup.
With the world’s two top ranked men’s teams pulling out, many are speculating if the competition can continue without them, while there remains the prospect other teams following suit. However as yet, no team has made such an announcement, with the focus of organisers being on getting the two teams back and ready to compete in October.
As anticipation continues to rise for the Rugby League World Cup, it’s still uncertain whether Australia and New Zealand will reverse their decision and make the journey to England.