Rugby League World Cup: New Zealand, Australia labelled 'cowards' for withdrawing from tournament

The decision by New Zealand Rugby League (NZRL) and the Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) to withdraw their sides from the upcoming World Cup has been labelled "selfish, parochial and cowardly."

The Kiwis and Kangaroos will not be attending the tournament to be held in England later this year, which leaves the international games pinnacle event in turmoil.

New Zealand (1) and Australia (8) have won the last nine tournaments between them, with the Kangaroos claiming the last two since Stephen Kearney's side's historic win in 2008.

But with two of the tournaments big guns no longer involved because of concerns around keeping the players healthy and safe during a global pandemic, it's unlikely the event will go ahead.

 Rugby Football League (RFL) boss Simon Johnson says both New Zealand and Australia were given assurances their players would receive preferential care.

"It's a selfish, parochial and cowardly decision," Johnson says.

"Rugby League World Cup organisers have bent over backwards to offer every assurance to the Australians and the Kiwis," Johnson tells the BBC. 

"We are very unhappy with this decision and we are not prepared to take it lying down."

COVID-19 infections are increasing in the UK with 47,114 new cases reported on average each day, less than a week since prime minister Boris Johnson released all lockdown protocols. 

Reuters reports the UK has recorded 5.5 million confirmed cases and 128,896 total deaths.

But despite the concerning figures, and the absence of the two trans-Tasman heavyweights, RLWC organisers remain committed to ensuring the tournament goes ahead. 

"Over recent weeks we have met all requests to set out the rigorous health measures that have kept thousands of elite athletes from around the world safe whilst competing in major sporting events across the UK," a statement said.

"In the best interests of the sport and its millions of fans around the world, we remain open to further discussions with the Australian and New Zealand rugby league authorities about what further reassurances they might need.

"We remain committed to the tournament and putting on a superb spectacle of sport."

In a joint statement on Thursday, NZRL and ARLC said their hope is the tournament will be postponed a year to "minimise risk of players contracting COVID-19."

"The decision to withdraw from the RLWC2021 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 [National Rugby League] players will spend away from home under strict biosecurity conditions prior to the World Cup," the statement said.