There will not be a New Zealand presence at the 2021 Rugby League World Cup.

The New Zealand Rugby League informed tournament organisers on Thursday that the Kiwis and Kiwi Ferns would not be attending the upcoming event in England, due to Covid related player welfare and safety concerns.

New Zealand has participated in every World Cup since the inaugural tournament in 1954.

It’s not a unilateral action, with the Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) also confirming that they would not be sending teams to the tournament, which is due to kick off on October 23.

In the joint statement, the NZRL and ARLC said the decision to withdraw comes after considering the risk of Covid-19 infection in the United Kingdom, the worsening environment in Australia and the time a majority of NRL players will spend away from home under strict biosecurity conditions prior to the World Cup.

They have resolved that the risks to athletes and officials participating in the tournament this year are too great and both bodies are calling for the event to be postponed until 2022.

The development is not a surprise. Behind the scenes there has been increasing tension between the powerbrokers in Australasia (essentially the NRL) and the tournament organisers, given their differing views of what is possible.

The RLWC 2021 bosses, together with the International Rugby League (IRL) have been determined to find a way to make the event happen, even with the undeniable challenges of bringing so many teams into England, especially all the southern hemisphere squads.

That’s partly because the IRL, which oversees the event, relies on the tournament as it only source of revenue and needs the funding. The event is also seen as a much-needed shot in the arm for the sport in the northern hemisphere, with an unprecedented broadcast deal with the BBC (61 matches live).

But the NRL, ARLC and the NZRL see it as logistically impossible, with the quarantine requirements at both ends, at the end of a challenging year for NRL players. They have been pushing for a postponement for some time and the recent NRL relocation in Australia was the final straw.

“The safety and wellbeing of our people is the main priority, and unfortunately, that cannot be guaranteed to our satisfaction,” said NZRL CEO 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.

“We understand how disappointing this is for fans and those involved; however player and staff safety remains paramount.”

ARLC Chairman Peter V’landys agreed that player wellbeing and safety must come first.

“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,” he said.

“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. The majority of NRL players are currently living away from home under difficult biosecurity protocols. They would then be required to remain under protocols and away from home for the duration of the tournament before again quarantining on return to Australia. This is too much to ask our players and officials to do.

“We have again requested the IRL and Rugby League World Cup consider postponing the event until 2022 to enable all players to participate.”

Fourteen teams remain in the men’s event, with six in the women’s tournament.

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