The top two countries in the International Rugby League world rankings have dropped out of this year's Rugby League World Cup.
The Australian Rugby League Commission and New Zealand Rugby League have now contacted the International Rugby League and Rugby League World Cup organisers to say both Australia and New Zealand will not compete due to player and staff safety and welfare.
They have also requested again that the world cup be postponed until next year to minimise the risk of players contracting Covid-19.
This year's world cup is being held in the UK, which has just lifted its lockdown in England and partially in Scotland. That means stadiums may host sports events being allowed to return to full capacity as of July 19. This is despite a rising number of Covid cases and almost 55% of the population fully vaccinated.
NZRL chief executive Greg Peters said, "The safety and wellbeing of our people is the main priority and, unfortunately, that cannot be guaranteed to our satisfaction.
“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.”
'Selfish, parochial, and cowardly'
The decision has drawn the ire of Rugby Football League chairman Simon Johnson, calling both the ARLC and NZRL "selfish, parochial and cowardly," in an article in Total Rugby League.
“My reaction this morning reflects the disappointment of the decision,” Johnson said.
“The reason for that is that the World Cup board have bent over backwards to accommodate security and various other issues.
"It has given assurance after assurance that travelling to the tournament and participating will be safe. We’re in July right now. This tournament is in October and in the intervening period Australia and New Zealand are in Tokyo and Australia’s rugby union team will be in England. Why are assurances on safety not good enough for our sport?
“We’ve been talking to them for months, we’ve known all their concerns and I think we would have expected a bit more of a head's up, but that’s not the end of the world.”
This year's edition of the Rugby League World Cup will include both female and wheelchair tournaments as well, running between October 23 and November 27.