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Holders and 11-time world champions Australia and 2008 world champions New Zealand have withdrawn from the 2021 Rugby League World Cup (RLWC) amid concerns over the coronavirus.
The tournament, which is hosted by England, starts on Saturday, October 23, when the hosts face Samoa.
Ireland was drawn in Group C with New Zealand, as well as Lebanon and Jamaica.
Australia and New Zealand have said it is “just too unsafe” to travel and have further cited concerns over players’ wellbeing and safety as reasons.
Both teams entered the competition as the top two teams in the world having automatically qualified after their performances in 2017 and were the two finalists that year.
As the number of cases in England continues to rise, the two countries have decided not to travel and have also repeatedly called for the match to be postponed until 2022.
Due to the decision to withdraw from the RLW, the Australian Jillaroos and Kiwi Ferns will not participate in the women’s division.
A joint statement from the two countries read: “The Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) and New Zealand Rugby League (NZRL) today informed the organizers of the International Rugby League (IRL) and Rugby League World Cup (RLWC) that Australia and New Zealand will not participate in a 2021 World Cup due to concerns about player welfare and safety.
“The ARLC and NZRL have again requested that the RLWC2021 be postponed to 2022 in order to minimize the risk of players contracting COVID-19 and ensure the best outcome for the player’s well-being.
“The ARLC and NZRL have decided that in the current environment, the risks to athletes and officials traveling to the UK this year to participate in the tournament are too great, and it cannot approve Australia and New Zealand to participate to the RLWC in 2021.”
NZRL chief executive Greg Peters called “big differences” between the management of the pandemic in the UK and Australasia and stated it was “just too unsafe” for the powerhouses of the southern hemisphere to participate in the tournament.
He said: “The safety and well-being of our people is a top priority and unfortunately cannot be guaranteed to our satisfaction.
“There are big differences between how the pandemic is being managed in the UK compared to Australia and recent developments have shown how quickly things can change.
“The tournament organizers have moved heaven and earth to make this work so it’s not an easy decision, but the Covid-19 situation in the UK shows no signs of improving and it’s just too unsafe to send teams and staff.
“We understand how disappointing this is for fans and stakeholders; however, the safety of players and staff remains paramount.”
ARLC chairman Peter V’landys AM echoed the concerns of his New Zealand counterpart and issued a renewed appeal for the tournament to be moved to next year.
“In the current environment, the risks to the safety, health and welfare of the players and officials traveling from Australia this year to participate in the tournament are insurmountable,” he said.
“The majority of NRL players currently live far from home under difficult biosafety protocols. They would then have to remain under protocol and away from home for the duration of the tournament before being quarantined again on return to Australia. This is asking too much of our players and officials.
“We have again requested that the IRL and Rugby League World Cup consider postponing the event until 2022 to allow all players to participate.”
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