Anger is mounting over the decision by Australia and New Zealand to pull out of the 2021 World Cup.
The southern hemisphere giants say they made the call because of the worsening Covid-19 situation in the UK which made it “simply too unsafe to send teams and staff over” but they were branded “cowardly” and “selfish”.
The issue was addressed in Parliament by Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg while Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle, a Warrington fan, announced he would be meeting tournament organisers to discuss the matter and Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said he and Government officials were also happy to meet them.
Rugby Football League chairman Simon Johnson said: “The World Cup organisers have bent over backwards and turned double somersaults to meet every single requirement that was asked of them, by the Australians particularly.
“To have those assurances completely dismissed, I am angry about this. This is a selfish, parochial and cowardly decision which has been taken by the Australian and New Zealand leadership.”
Johnson is hoping for a change of heart and former England coach Steve McNamara is urging the NRL clubs to put their self-interest to one side and get behind the tournament.
Officials promised the most efficient bio-security measures possible in an effort to allay safety fears but the NRL clubs remain unconvinced, while wary of the need for player to go into quarantine on their return to Australia which would affect their preparations for the 2022 season.
McNamara, the Catalans Dragons head coach who worked as an assistant at Sydney Roosters and New Zealand Warriors, has little sympathy for the stance taken by the NRL clubs.
“They’re talking from 12,000 miles away,” he told the PA news agency. “I think they’ve got their own interests at heart and I understand that to some extent but we’re talking about the World Cup, the pinnacle of our sport.
“I’ve been involved as an assistant coach and as a head coach, both in the southern hemisphere and the northern hemisphere, and ultimately, it’s what players play for.
“There’s all the tribalism that goes with being a club player but there is nothing quite like that feeling of playing for your country in a World Cup.
“You hear a lot of ‘we’re all in this together’ and we always look after each other but I don’t think with some of this it’s the case.
“I think some people are trying to look after their own backyard. We’ll be affected more than any other club team in the world with the amount of players we’ll have out but we want the World Cup to go ahead.”
There was strong criticism from International Rugby League chair Troy Grant, a former Australian politician who says some players are now considering switching allegiances to other nations to enable them to take part in the tournament.
“I have been in regular communication with the RLPA and a number of international players and coaches who have been satisfied with the World Cup’s bio-security arrangements and have expressed to me that they feel their own personal choice to participate or not in the World Cup has been taken from them.
“The RLPA have again committed to continue to work with IRL and the Local Organising Committee towards a 2021 tournament including Australian and New Zealand players who have dual eligibility and who are now keen to play for other nations.”
Organisers are frantically trying to work out their next step after being caught on the hop by the decision, which came just seven days after it was announced the tournament would go ahead as planned on October 23.
The decision comes a week after the NRL relocated its competition to Queensland following fresh Covid outbreaks in New South Wales and Victoria but Johnson says the rugby league authorities in Australia are bucking the trend as the world emerges from lockdown.
“I would have some sympathy for them were I not aware that right now Australian athletes are in Tokyo for the Olympics, that New Zealand men’s cricketers have played in England this summer and that the rugby union team from Australia will be coming for a series of internationals in October,” he said.
“So, if their sports’ governing bodies are comfortable with the arrangements that are made, why are the rugby league authorities not satisfied with that?”
A joint statement from the two nations said: “The Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) and New Zealand Rugby League (NZRL) today informed the International Rugby League (IRL) and Rugby League World Cup (RLWC) organisers that Australia and New Zealand will not compete in a 2021 World Cup because of player welfare and safety concerns.
“The ARLC and NZRL have again requested the RLWC2021 be postponed until 2022 to minimise risk of players contracting COVID-19 and ensure the best outcome for player well-being.”
A statement issued by World Cup organisers said: “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.”