Decision within days as crisis-hit Rugby League World Cup ’50-50′ to go ahead this autumn

Jon Dutton CEO, Rugby League World Cup
X The Business Desk

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A decision on whether the 2021 Rugby League World Cup goes ahead is expected within days with tournament oragnisers rating the chances as “50-50”.

Last week Australia and New Zealand pulled out citing Covid-19 safety concerns, throwing the competition into doubt.

The two countries have dominated the tournament and it is nearly 50 years since either of them didn’t win it. Only the first tournament, in 1954, had a final which didn’t include either country.

The Rugby League World Cup 2021, which includes a men’s, women’s and wheelchair tournament, is due to kick-off in Newcastle on October 23. The vast majority of matches are due to take place across the North of England over five weeks before the finals of the men’s and women’s tournaments at Old Trafford on November 27.

Organisers are currently considering three options – to play the tournament in 2021 with a Australian Indigenous and Maori All Stars teams as replacements, postponing until 2022, or cancelling.

Delaying by a year brings additional costs as well as competition, with the 2022 World Cup and the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham also taking place in the second half of next year.

A tournament this autumn remains the preference and the UK Government, which has provided significant financial support has been involved in talks with the Australian and New Zealand Governments, as well as State governments in Australia.

RLWC2021 chief executive Jon Dutton said: “I think authentically we’re 50-50 but we don’t know and won’t know until we listen to the players.

“What is clear is the players’ voice and the players’ choice has not been there in the decisions that have been made. we don’t want to have the same approach, we want to listen to the players.

“We appreciate that they have concerns. I think a lot of the concerns are more about wellbeing rather than safety given that many of them have been in bubble environments.

“Without the players, we don’t have a tournament, and that’s why we need to listen to them in the upcoming days.”

Dutton had a call today with “a handful” of NRL club chief executives, who hold a lot of power as the employers of the players who need to be released for international duty and whose preference remains to postpone. Currently players would have to quarantine on their return from the World Cup, which will affect pre-season preparations at clubs ahead of the 2022 season.

Although Dutton believes Australia and New Zealand’s decision to withdraw is “irreversible”, there are at least five more countries, including 2017 World Cup semi-finalists Tonga, whose squads mostly play for NRL clubs.

“We’ve spoken to every nation,” said Dutton. “Are there remaining concerns? There are.

“Ultimately the main concern is whether specifically the NRL men’s players will participate, and that is what all of this boils down to. We’ve got to consider the women’s and the wheelchair athletes in all of this, they are part time athletes.”

Organisers remain confident that spectators and sponsors will back the tournament if it does go ahead as scheduled this autumn.

“We have over-performed on ticket sales and we still stand by our original projections,” said Dutton.

“We have no idea what the impact might be dependent on the replacement teams but we are still confident that we can sell into full venues, that we would have 52,000 spectators at St James’ Park for [the opening match] England v Samoa, and we can reach the overall revenue projection and the forecast that we have got.

“Clearly there’s a lot of additional costs in here but we’re prepared to meet that because we believe in the tournament.”