▮ Brad Walter - NRL.com | 5 August 2021
RLWC2021 CEO Jon Dutton admitted a World Cup without Australia and New Zealand would have lacked credibility and predicted the tournament may produce a better financial return after being postponed until next year.
The World Cup board reluctantly decided to postpone the tournament after the Kangaroos, Jillaroos, Kiwis and Kiwi Ferns were withdrawn due to concerns over the safety of players travelling to England this year.
The tournament will go ahead at the end of the 2022 season, but it is likely to be brought forward to avoid a clash with the FIFA World Cup, which begins on November 21 in Qatar.
IRL chairman Troy Grant said the next World Cup was still scheduled to be held in 2025, with France likely to host the tournament.
Describing the decision to postpone this year’s World Cup as the “least worst” outcome, Dutton said uncertainty over COVID-19 and the availability of NRL players in Pacific nations teams had left tournament organisers with little choice.
However, there were positives from the decision, with Dutton and RLWC2021 chairman Chris Brindley having had “very positive” discussions with ARLC chairman Peter V’landys and NRL CEO Andrew Abdo in recent weeks.
“We made the right decision not to go based on the well-being of our players,” V’landys told ABC Sport on Thursday. “I think they still thought we were convicts to the colony. We are a sovereign nation and a sovereign organisation."
Dutton has also had the opportunity to talk with NRL club CEOs about plans for the World Cup and he hopes to further develop those relationships.
In addition, the postponement of the World Cup is expected to save tournament organisers the cost of charter flights and a quarantine hub at Sydney Olympic Park for up to 500 players and staff travelling from the southern hemisphere to England.
“I think when we take a step back, we will probably be in a stronger financial position in 2022,” Dutton said.
“Clearly we had some exceptional costs to meet in terms of charter flights and private managed quarantine etc that we anticipate won’t be there in 2022.
“We are in a really strong position. We obviously have a domestic broadcast partnership in place [with the BBC] and that will be unaffected next year, but there is a bit more work to be done in the international broadcast space.
“Another 12 months will bring opportunities to onboard more commercial partners and over the last couple of weeks we have been approached by more people so overall we will come out in a strong position.”
Spark had secured the World Cup broadcast rights in New Zealand but no Australian deal had been announced and if the Kangaroos, Jillaroos and Wheelaroos weren’t playing there would have been little interest among broadcasters.
Dutton said the UK Government, which has committed GBP 25 million to the World Cup, would continue to support the 61-match tournament in 2022, while the 18 host towns and cities in England remained on board.
“This was always about doing the right thing for the sport,” Dutton said.
“Could we have carried on without Australia and New Zealand? We could [but] I don’t think we would have been credible. I think [with] other nations, unfortunately there would have been a domino effect.”
Grant said Australian and New Zealand officials had given “an assurance of their positivity and support and commitment to 2022”.
The next step will be to ensure the ARLC and NZRL sign participation agreements for Australian and New Zealand teams to compete in the men’s, women’s and wheelchair tournaments at the end of next season.
“I have spoken to Peter V’landys and Chris, my chairman, has spoken to Peter V’landys, and we of course remain open to carrying on those conversations,” Dutton said.
“I have had a number of conversations recently with Andrew Abdo that I would describe as very positive and very conciliatory, and we will continue to work in that way. As tough as this is, it is about building or rebuilding relationships.”
RLPA CEO Clint Newton said the players’ association also looked forward to continuing to work closely with the IRL and World Cup organisers ahead of next year’s tournament.
"While postponement is a setback for international rugby league, we need to ensure that we continue to explore opportunities for players to participate and represent their nations on the world stage leading into the 2022 tournament,” Newton said.
"The passion players have towards representing their nations in international matches is undisputed, and the RLPA is committed to playing a lead role as we work towards increasing international exposure for rugby league.”
South Sydney coach Wayne Bennett, who had charge of England at the 2017 World Cup, supported the postponement after previously suggesting the tournament could go ahead without Australia and New Zealand.
“If it is next year and they all buy into it I am happy for that,” Bennett said. "I think we have seen how great the Olympics have been and it was put back nine months so we all know we can do that if that is what we are going to do.
“The important thing is that they play the World Cup.”