The Rugby League World Cup, due to take place in England later this year, has been plunged into serious doubt after Australia and New Zealand pulled out.
The two southern hemisphere giants said they would not send their men’s, women’s and wheelchair teams due to the Covid-19 situation in the UK.
World Cup organisers noted the “disappointing statement”, which they said “may have wide ranging implications” for the international game.
“Not participating in this year’s World Cup is not a decision the commission has taken lightly,” said Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) chairman Peter V’landys.
“But we must put the best interests of our players and officials first. Protecting them is our absolute priority.
“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.”
Last week World Cup chiefs insisted the tournament would go ahead in October and November as planned, adding they were confident that Australia and New Zealand would take part.
But the absence of the two powerhouses – Australia are the reigning men’s and women’s champions – has left organisers in a difficult position.
“The safety and wellbeing of our people is the main priority, and unfortunately, that cannot be guaranteed to our satisfaction,” said New Zealand Rugby League chief 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.”
World Cup organisers 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.”
The 2021 Rugby League World Cup, the first to stage men’s women’s and wheelchair competitions concurrently, is due to start on 23 October.