The 2021 Rugby League World Cup will be postponed until 2022 after embattled officials finally conceded defeat in their bid to stage the tournament as planned in the autumn.
Officials initially vowed to press ahead regardless after Australia and New Zealand pulled out, citing safety concerns amid the coronavirus pandemic, and had hoped a direct plea to players would be enough to keep the tournament alive.
However, the statement issued last Friday on behalf of all 16 NRL clubs pledging support for the boycott and calling for a postponement proved to be the last straw.
The PA news agency understands the UK Government which backed the tournament to the tune of £25million, has agreed that it should be put back 12 months and that recommendation will go before an emergency World Cup board meeting on Wednesday.
An official announcement is expected after that meeting with a press conference set to take place on Thursday morning when chief executive Jon Dutton will front the media.
The announcement comes a little over two months to the scheduled start and three weeks since organisers announced the tournament would go ahead as planned.
Just a week on from that announcement, however, officials were caught on the hop by the decision of the ARL Commission and New Zealand RL, who gave them just four minutes’ notice of the decision to boycott.
Organisers were particularly aggrieved by the stance taken by the Kiwis, who were among the nations to sign participation agreements 12 months ago.
Australia’s reluctance to commit, based on strong opposition from the NRL clubs, was always a potential stumbling block but organisers agreed to put in place a range of bio-secure measures, including charter flights to bring the 400 or so players and staff from Australia.
Organisers went as far as agreeing to foot the bill for quarantining players on their return to Australia, with the extra cash coming from a host of successful commercial deals which had exceeded initial targets.
Buoyed by support from the Australian Rugby League Players Association and a poll which suggested 75 per cent of players were keen to take part in the World Cup, organisers opened talks with Indigenous and Maori representatives with a view to securing replacements for Australia and New Zealand.
However, the blows continued to come, notably the decision to re-schedule the Women’s NRL competition for October, in direct opposition to the World Cup, which left the organisers with little option but to postpone.
Dutton, who began preparing for the 2021 World Cup more than five years ago, told a press conference last Thursday there was “little appetite” for a postponement but it is thought that is preferable to a cancellation.
The hard work will now begin again for officials, who will need to find extra funding to keep the World Cup operation in place for another 12 months. Extra staff were taken on on 12-month contracts which are due to expire at the end of November.
Officials will have to start fresh negotiations with the BBC, who were due to show all 61 matches across the men’s, women’s and wheelchair events, as well as with stadium and camp hosts.
They must also agree on a new timetable, with officials likely to want to avoid a clash with the FIFA World Cup in Qatar from November 21 to December 18.
The news will dash hopes of building on the feelgood factor generated by the return of crowds and come as a body blow to England coach Shaun Wane whose only game since being appointed in February 2020 was the clash with the Combined Nations All Stars in June.
Last year’s Ashes Series fell victim to the pandemic and a scheduled warm-up match against Fiji on October 15 looks certain to be cancelled.
Wane may still want to play matches in the autumn, possibly against other European nations, while Super League clubs will no doubt be keen to take up some of the free dates to reschedule the many games postponed due to Covid-19 outbreaks.