Australia will not be defending their crown after pulling out of the 2021 World Cup

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Australia and New Zealand have been branded “selfish, parochial and cowardly” for pulling out of the Rugby League World Cup less than a week after Boris Johnson marked 100 days to the tournament on the steps of Downing Street.

The Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) and New Zealand Rugby League (NZRL) stood accused of giving organisers just four minutes’ notice of their decision to withdraw from the tournament in England over what they said were “player welfare and safety concerns” related to coronavirus.

The announcement, which also included a call for the event to be postponed by a year, sparked an immediate row amid suspicions opposition from Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL) teams lay behind the decision.

Simon Johnson, the chairman of the Rugby Football League, branded the decision “selfish, parochial and cowardly”, adding: “We have bent over backwards to accommodate their concerns.”

NZRL chief Greg Peters said it was “simply too unsafe” to take part after England scrapped almost all Covid-19 restrictions on Monday.

“The safety and wellbeing of our people is the main priority, and unfortunately, that cannot be guaranteed to our satisfaction,” he said.

“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.”

About half of Australia’s population has been plunged 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.

The country’s borders are currently closed and anyone returning there has to spend 14 days in government-managed quarantine, something that would impact on NRL teams’ pre-season preparations if their players took part in the World Cup.

ARLC chairman Peter V’landys said: “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 [International Rugby League] and Rugby League World Cup consider postponing the event until 2022 to enable all players to participate.”

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.”

Nigel Huddleston, the sports minister, posted on Twitter: “Extremely surprising and disappointing decision from the ARLC and NZRL. We’ve met all requests made and shown that elite sports players can be kept safe.

“We will work with the RLWC team to seek clarity on what new assurances were requested, if any, before this press release was issued unexpectedly today. Their decision risks depriving the world – including Australian and New Zealand rugby fans – of a superb spectacle of sport.”

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.