Defending champions Australia, along with New Zealand, have withdrawn from the Rugby League World Cup 2021 (RLWC2021) due to COVID-19-related safety concerns.

The Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) and New Zealand Rugby League (NZRL) confirmed the decision in a joint statement and requested that the men’s, women’s and wheelchair tournaments, set to be staged in England in October and November, be postponed to 2022.

This year’s Rugby League World Cup was set to be increased to include an additional two teams to 16 competing nations in total.

However, despite the UK government lifting restrictions in place earlier in the week, the two national teams noted that coronavirus cases continue to rise and insisted it would prioritise player safety.

ARLC Chairman, Peter V’landys, explained: “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 and Rugby League World Cup consider postponing the event until 2022 to enable all players to participate.”

Half of the Australian population has been placed in lockdown and the borders closed, meaning players and staff returning to the country would have to spend 14 days in quarantine.

“The safety and wellbeing of our people is the main priority, and unfortunately, that cannot be guaranteed to our satisfaction,” noted NZRL Chief, Greg Peters.

“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.”

Rugby League World Cup organisers expressed their disappointment at Australia and New Zealand’s decision to pull out of the tournament, stating that the move could have ‘wide ranging implications for international rugby league’.

It added: “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.”

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