The Rugby League World Cup 2021 will go ahead as planned, the organizers have confirmed.
In a conference call with global media, RLWC Chief Executive Jon Dutton confirmed that the tournament would happen.
It had been under a cloud since rumors emerged that club from the National Rugby League (NRL), the premier club competition, suggested that their players may not take part.
“This tournament is so important for International Rugby League,” said Dutton “We have great momentum. There is desire from the UK Government that it go ahead. We are past the point of no return. We will stage the tournament this year.”
“We expect all nations to show up” said Jon Dutton, clearly pointed at the potential that Australia might not. “We wouldn’t be making this announcement if we didn’t think they would come.”
Dutton added that no deadline had been set for Australia to confirm that they would compete, but clearly the ball is now in their court.
“We have a can-do attitude,” said International Rugby League chair Troy Grant. “The opportunity that would be lost by not having the World Cup this year is massive. If soccer can play, Ash Barty can make us all proud (by winning Wimbledon), why can’t rugby league players? The reputational damage would be immense for those who chose not to take part.”
World Cup organizers have been dealing with the twin threat of rising COVID numbers in Australia, where the bulk of the players are based, and the impending relaxation of restrictions in the UK, where the tournament will be held.
MORE FOR YOU
Dutton confirmed that Biosecurity measures will be in place and vaccinations will not be mandatory for players. Contingency plans have been made should changes in UK COVID-19 restrictions force games to be played behind closed doors, though organizers said they hoped that this was a last resort.
Many had questioned the ability to move over 400 players and staff from Australia to England, especially given the onerous quarantine restrictions imposed on returning travellers to Australia.
Grant and Dutton focussed on three key elements in their decision to continue as planned: player power, government support and commercial considerations.
It was announced that the tournament had already surpassed commercial targets and that, in an attempt to smooth relations with the NRL clubs, some of that cash would be reinvested in chartering planes to bring players from the Southern Hemisphere to England.
“From International Rugby League perspective, the Rugby League World Cup this year is critical,” said Grant. “International rugby league was sorely missed in 2020. Momentum was lost. There’s a real yearning in the Southern Hemisphere (for it).”
Grant noted the huge expansion of broadcast potential that has come with the tournament, in particular regarding the Women’s World Cup, which will be held concurrently (as will the Wheelchair World Cup) and will be seen by more people than ever before.
Jon Dutton also spoke of the importance of government support: at least £25 million ($34.5m USD) has been invested in the tournament by central government in the UK, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson raised the World Cup with his Australian counterpart, Scott Morrison, at the recent G7 summit.
Lastly, the willingness of players to compete and travel from the Southern Hemisphere to do so was cited as vital. Organizers are in constant discussion with the Rugby League Players Association (RLPA), and have surveyed the players, who overwhelmingly responded that they wanted to play.
While the NRL does provide a bulk of the players to the World Cup, they do not all play for Australia, where the league is based: in fact, the majority play for other nations, particularly those in the Pacific Islands.
There has been revolution in international rugby league in recent years, sparked by a change in eligibility rules that allowed many elite players to represent their nations of heritage even after previously appearing for Australia or New Zealand.
Thus, the opportunity for players to represent their families and their heritage is very strong, and crucial to their willingness to compete despite restrictions.
“This will be the most competitive World Cup in generations,” added International Rugby League chairman Troy Grant. “There is nothing but positivity to represent nations of heritage. That’s a wonderful thing to raise competitiveness of international rugby league.”