(Reuters) - This year's Rugby League World Cup in England has been postponed until 2022 after last month's withdrawals of defending champions Australia and New Zealand, tournament organisers said on Thursday.
Australia and New Zealand withdrew citing player welfare and safety concerns amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) and New Zealand Rugby League (NZRL) had asked organisers to postpone the Oct. 23-Nov. 27 event until next year.
"Rugby League World Cup 2021 and the UK Government have today announced their intention to stage the flagship event in the international Rugby League calendar in 2022," organisers said in a statement https://www.rlwc2021.com/article/324/rlwc2021-will-now-be-staged-in-2022.
"Tournament organisers faced several unique and complex challenges with the most significant being the non-release of up to 400 players, match officials and staff members from the NRL competition in Australia.
"Ultimately this decision has been detrimental to the plans and ambitions of many of the competing nations and potential replacement teams.
"A key factor was ensuring that fans of Rugby League are able to enjoy the best possible tournament, which was not possible under these circumstances."
Rugby Football League (RFL) chairman Simon Johnson had earlier called Australia and New Zealand's withdrawals "a selfish, parochial and cowardly decision".
COVID-19 infections are increasing in the UK while Australia is also battling outbreaks of COVID-19 albeit on a much smaller scale.
"Despite working tirelessly to explore solutions that would allow us to go ahead as planned, circumstances beyond our control have meant that postponing the Rugby League World Cup until next year is the strongest option for staging a successful tournament," UK Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston said.
Australia's "Kangaroos" have dominated the World Cup, winning eight of the last nine editions dating back to the 1970s. New Zealand, whose top players also compete in the NRL, won the 2008 World Cup hosted by Australia.
(Reporting by Simon Jennings in Bengaluru; Editing by Hugh Lawson)