MANCHESTER, England (AP) — Rugby League World Cup organizers confirmed on Thursday the tournament will go ahead as planned in October and remain confident Australia will be in England to defend its trophy.
The tournament had been in doubt due to the surge in COVID-19 cases and resistance from Australia’s NRL clubs concerned over travel and quarantine restrictions caused by the pandemic.
Tournament chief executive Jon Dutton admitted at a news conference that Australia has yet to sign the participation agreement and Troy Grant, chairman of the International Rugby League, revealed officials have identified potential replacements in the event of any teams withdrawing.
But Dutton said organizers have put a team in place in Sydney in an effort to get a deal over the line and he was confident of being able to avoid a similar situation to 1995, when Australia came over for the World Cup with an under-strength team at the height of the Super League war.
“We do expect all 21 nations to come to the U.K.,” he said. “We met with all of them earlier in the week.
“We appreciate there are still some challenges for us to work through. But we wouldn’t be making this announcement today if we didn’t have the confidence that those nations would arrive in this country and compete in the tournament.
“It’s really important for us to take away the uncertainty and to build confidence.”
The tournament will kick off on Oct. 23 when England face Samoa at Newcastle’s St James’ Park, the first of 61 matches across the men’s, women’s and wheelchair competitions.
The men’s and women’s finals will be played at Old Trafford on Nov. 27 and Dutton says ticket sales have far exceeded expectations.
Grant said: “The World Cup going ahead this year is critical. There was no international rugby league in 2020 and it was sorely missed.
“If it didn’t happen there could be immense damage to the reputation of the international game.”
Half of the 16 men’s teams will come from the southern hemisphere and Dutton confirmed his organization will foot the bill for charter flights to bring the 400-plus players and officials from Australia as well as ensuring other bio-security measures are put in place.
Dutton, who was involved in the successful staging of the 2013 World Cup in the U.K. and began preparations for the 2021 tournament more than five years ago, delayed a final decision over the last three months and admitted he passed the point of no return.
“Today marks 100 days to go and we believe this is the right moment to take away any remaining uncertainty,” said Dutton, who confirmed he considered both a postponement and a cancellation.
Dutton said vaccination for players will not be made mandatory but there were plans for a testing regime and a hybrid bio-secure bubble, and he said some of the restrictions set to be lifted in the U.K. on Monday — such as social distancing and face masks — will be retained.
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