Organisers of the Rugby League World Cup have pledged to spend £5 million to secure the safety of Australian-based players and staff at the autumn tournament, Sportsmail can reveal.
The rugby league authorities of Australia and New Zealand may have controversially ruled themselves and their players out of the competition, but competitors from other countries are still queueing up to travel and are confident in the arrangements.
The £5 million package includes seven charter flights to and from the UK – 14 in all – for up to 400 players and officials from different countries, who compete in the National Rugby League in Australia.
Tonga’s Jason Taumalolo is an Australian-based players planning to play in the World Cup
This would have included representatives of the Australia and New Zealand teams, but will also provide for Tongan, Fijian and even English players and staff.
The exact protocols have been set out in a 75-page document produced by the tournament and shared with the 16 participating nations. It includes safe and comfortable quarantine arrangements for the participants on their return to Australia.
Australia and New Zealand have been accused of ‘bowing down’ to pressure from NRL clubs, who are concerned that the tournament and subsequent quarantine will impact on their preseason plans.
But NRL players from other countries are all too aware that if the tournament goes ahead, there will never be a better chance to seize Australia’s World Cup crown, and they are determined to take it even if their clubs are not keen to let them go.
Tonga will hope to win the World Cup if it goes ahead with Australia and New Zealand
Reigning champions Australia (pictured) have won the competition eight times and NZ once
Among them is Tongan lock forward Jason Taumalolo.
‘I myself am still going over to play in the World Cup,’ Taumalolo told a press conference at his club North Queensland on Tuesday.
Jason Taumalolo plays for North Queensland in the NRL
The 28-year-old is a stalwart for Tonga and his club, having racked up more than 200 appearances in the National Rugby League in Australia in a decade.
‘It’s obviously disappointing to have Australia and New Zealand pull out but two countries pulling out doesn’t really hamper what the game is all about.
‘It’s about international footy and getting other countries and nations ready to play each other.’
Asked if his Australian counterparts will be disappointed at missing out, Taumalolo replied: ‘100 per cent.’
However, it is possible that some Australian and New Zealand players will choose to play for other countries for which they are eligible and under rugby league rules they could switch their allegiance for this tournament.
‘It will be competitive,’ said Taumalolo. ‘I’m not sure what the players from Australia and New Zealand are going to do, with guys having heritage aligned to other countries.
Australia and New Zealand have said they will pull out of the Rugby League World Cup
‘We’ll see if they return back to play for their heritage but it would make for a pretty interesting international set of fixtures to be honest.
‘I really think you could see something special and we could see a few upsets too.’
The Australian Rugby League Commission and New Zealand Rugby League made the shock announcement on Thursday morning that they would not send teams to this year’s World Cup.
They cited player welfare and Covid as the reasons for pulling out and plunging the competition into uncertainty.
The tournament organisers are due to meet tomorrow to decide their next steps.
Tom Burgess of the South Sydney Rabbitohs is planning to play for England at the World Cup
But English NRL star Tom Burgess is still planning to be on board when the jumbos take off from Sydney, bound for the World Cup in October.
The South Sydney Rabbitohs captain has had to rearrange his wedding in Australia since it would have fallen within the 14-day quarantine period required by the government in Canberra, should England reach the World Cup final.
Burgess is one of many high-profile English players in the NRL, with the likes of Josh Hodgson and Elliott Whitehead also likely to be homeward bound for the showpiece tournament.
Nothing is going to stop the former Bradford Bulls player from pulling on the England jersey.
Englishman (pictured in 2015 against New Zealand) says English players are ‘all ready to go’
Asked at a Rabbitohs press conference if the English contingent were determined to travel, the 29-year-old prop forward replied: ‘Yeah definitely, we’re all ready to go – we all wanted to make it across.
RUGBY LEAGUE INTERNATIONAL ELIGIBILITY RULES
Eligibility to represent a nation is based upon the birthplace of the player, the birthplace of any parent or grandparent, or residency over a five-year period,
A player eligible for any nations other than Australia, England, New Zealand can only make one switch between those nations in a four-year period.
Players qualified for Australia, England and New Zealand plus any other nation can make multiple switches however they can only elect to represent one nation in any calendar year.
Players can only represent one of Australia, England or New Zealand in a career, even if eligible for more than one of those nations. If eligible they can play for nations outside of those three.
Players cannot represent Australia or New Zealand if they have elected to represent Great Britain and vice versa.
No player can play for more than one country in any recognised international competition.
‘It’s a big commitment, it’s not something I’ve taken lightly. Playing for your country is a big achievement, and I’d never turn it down no matter how hard the circumstances are.
‘I’d be away for probably 10 weeks from my young family, it’s a big call. I did have to speak to my partner about it, but we made the call and she understands this is my job and I’m very proud to play for my country.
‘I think I’m in the same boat as a lot of players – we’re in a period of our lives where we want to play for our countries if we get the opportunity. Not much is going to stop us really.’
Burgess, who has played 180 matches in the NRL for the South Sydney since 2013, has the full support of his coach, Wayne Bennett.
‘It’s the players’ rights, why wouldn’t I support it,’ Bennett, who coached England and Great Britain from 2016 to 2020, said last week.
‘The NRL and NZ Rugby League have made a decision, that’s fine – but if a player wants to go and play for Samoa and Tonga, I don’t see why he can’t be allowed to play.
‘We have made so many exceptions and exemptions to keep our competition going here.
‘If England and other nations want to keep the World Cup alive, then I don’t think it’s our prerogative to interfere.
‘I would not prevent any player I’m coaching from going. If he wanted to go and it meant that much to him and the competition was on, I don’t feel I have that right personally.
‘Life will go on without Australia and New Zealand, we are just a part of it.’
However, not all NRL teams and coaches are so generous and competition organisers fear players could come under pressure to stay in Australia.
While the clubs may have to release players to represent their nations if the competitors insist, it will be more complex should the Australian and New Zealand indigenous all-star teams push to enter the tournament.
The Rugby League World Cup is trying to establish if players have to be released by clubs to participate in those sides.
Another option may be for the USA and Serbia to enter teams in the absence of Australia and New Zealand. They are the next two countries to qualify for the tournament.
The announcement that Australia and New Zealand were pulling out came days after UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson (shown right) posed with the trophy outside No 10 Downing Street,
STATEMENT FROM ARLC AND NZRL
The Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) and New Zealand Rugby League (NZRL) issued a joint statement today announcing they would withdraw from the 2021 Rugby League World Cup.
‘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,’ said ARLC chairman Peter V’landys.
‘In the current environment, 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 to consider postponing the event until 2022 to enable all players to participate.’
NZRL chief executive, Greg Peters, added: ‘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.’
A statement from the Rugby League World Cup said: ‘RLWC2021 note the disappointing statement made by the ARLC and NZRL which may have wide ranging implications for international Rugby League.
‘RLWC2021 were informed at very short notice and will continue discussions with all stakeholders to agree on the best way forward. A further statement will be made in due course.’