Australia will not defend their title at the end of this year (Image: X02378)

Get our daily Rugby League update sent directly to your inbox

Invalid EmailSomething went wrong, please try again later.Sign upWe use your sign-up to provide content in ways you’ve consented to and to improve our understanding of you. This may include adverts from us and 3rd parties based on our understanding. You can unsubscribe at any time.More infoThank you for subscribingWe have more newslettersShow meSee ourprivacy notice

Rugby Football League chairman Simon Johnson has labelled Australia and New Zealand’s decision to withdraw from this year’s Rugby League World Cup as “selfish, parochial and cowardly”.

The ARL and NZRL made the decision after considering the risk of COVID-19 infection in the United Kingdom, the worsening environment in Australia and the time a majority of NRL players would have to spend away from home under strict biosecurity conditions prior to the World Cup.

But Johnson has hit out at the move in an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, pointing to Australia and New Zealand competing in other sports this year on an international basis. Johnson said: “They’ve said that because they’ve not had the assurances they’ve asked for they are not able to travel to participate in the tournament this year.

“They believe the problems are insurmountable. The difficultly I think for us is that this selfish, parochial and cowardly decision is one that needn’t have been taken. The Rugby League World Cup organisers have bent over backward to offer every assurance to the Australians and to the Kiwis.

England faced Australia in the final of the 2017 event in Brisbane
(Image: AAP/PA Images)

“I think the British public would want to know why they’ve made that decision now about a tournament in October when they have athletes currently in Tokyo participating in the Olympics, when their rugby union team the Wallabies are planning to come to Wales in October, when the New Zealand cricket team have been here already to participate.

“There is something that the rugby league authorities believe is insurmountable, while other sports and athletes seem to have no problem. Rugby League World Cup organisers have made considerable commitments at great expense, as have the British Government, to do what they can to guarantee the safety of the athletes when they are here and when they return and travel between. I’m afraid that the rugby league authorities in Australia and New Zealand have just not been prepared to accept those assurances.”

Asked how they could fight the decision, Johnson responded: “I think the Australian rugby league team leadership have a difficulty here. In the letter that they sent us I think they reveal the real reason that clubs do not want the players to have to quarantine when they return.

“I think what’s needed here is the leadership of rugby league to face down those clubs because otherwise the leadership of rugby league in Australia has got to speak to those players and potentially say that they will not be able to participate in a Rugby League World Cup at all. Players who are at the peak of their athletic achievement, the fact that they cannot participate at the pinnacle of their sport I think is going to be very difficult to take. We are very, very unhappy with this decision and we are not prepared to take it lying down.

New Zealand have also confirmed they will not travel this autumn
(Image: Hannah Peters)

“Sport events have been returning to normal in the UK, and by October/November we expect that almost entirely all events will be playing at full capacity. Of course it’s possible to postpone, but the time that rugby league is playing next year, we will be competing with the Commonwealth Games, the FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

"October/November 2021 is perfect, and because of the way that the restrictions have been lifted here in the UK which sees fans returning to sporting events, it will be very difficult for the British public not to expect the Rugby league World Cup to take place. We’ve sold tickets – how do we explain to our fans when they for example will see the Australian rugby union team playing in Wales in October?”

The RFL chairman also believes that the matter will be escalated to government level on both sides of the world. He added: “Government has been extremely supportive of us all the way through. The Government is represented on the board of the Rugby League World Cup company so they’re fully aware of this decision. I know that links and contacts have been made at government to government level and I expect those to continue.