23 Jul 2021

NZ rugby league boss hits back at criticism of withdrawal from World Cup

10:22 am on 23 July 2021

New Zealand rugby league chief executive Greg Peters says comments describing New Zealand and Australia's decision to pull out of this year's World Cup as "selfish and cowardly" are "ill-informed and misguided".

New NZRL chief executive Greg Peters.

New NZRL chief executive Greg Peters. Photo: Photosport

England's Rugby Football League (RFL) chairman Simon Johnson made the remarks as he slammed the trans-Tasman neighbours for withdrawing from the tournament, set to start in England in October, due to concerns about Covid-19.

He called the withdrawals "a selfish, parochial and cowardly decision".

"Rugby League World Cup organisers have bent over backwards to offer every assurance to the Australians and the Kiwis," Johnson told the BBC. "We are very unhappy with this decision and we are not prepared to take it lying down."

World Cup organisers said they were informed about the withdrawals at "very short notice" and would continue discussions with stakeholders to agree on the best way forward.

"RLWC2021 note the disappointing statement made by the ARLC and NZRL which may have wide-ranging implications for international Rugby League," organisers said in a statement.

Covid-19 infections are increasing in the UK with 47,114 new cases reported on average each day. The UK has recorded 5.5 million confirmed cases and 128,896 total deaths, according to a Reuters tally.

Australia is also battling outbreaks of Covid-19 albeit on a much smaller scale. Around 13 million people, or half the country's population, are under strict lockdown.

Both New Zealand and Australia rugby league have requested the World Cup be postponed until next year.

NZRL boss Peters said organisers didn't have enough safety protocols in place to run the tournament in 2021.

"My answer is that (Johnson's comments) are ill-informed and misguided. If, as he says, they had listened to our concerns many months ago, then they would have detailed plans about how are people could be kept safely on the ground in the UK and detailed plans about how they could be repatriated to Australasia at the end of the tournament, which is no simple feat when you're looking at 500 players."

Peters said England opening up their Covid restrictions and having much higher vaccination rates than Australia and New Zealand played a role in their decision.

"I think the number is 33 percent increase in Covid cases in the last week in the UK. Now they're doing a fantastic job at vaccinating their population and a high percentage of people are vaccinated there. That's not the case in Australia and New Zealand."

Peters also said individual beliefs within the rugby league community could result in fewer Kiwis and NRL players opting to get vaccinated in the first place.

"We have probably eight to ten percent of people vaccinated in New Zealand now and particularly within our demographic of rugby league players, there is a high proportion of people, for whatever reason; there own personal choice, religious beliefs or whatever, who will decide not to take the vaccine. So, that's another consideration.

"You only have to look back a couple of years to look at the measles outbreak in Auckland and Samoa, that was a similar situation. People hadn't been vaccinated against a disease."

Peters believes the World Cup will now struggle to go ahead.

"70 percent of the players come from the NRL that will play at the World Cup. So, you can draw your own conclusions from that. It's going to be challenging for them, but if they do decide to go ahead that's their decision, but they'll have to do it without us because we don't think the safety protocols were of a standard where we could hand on heart put our people into that environment."

However the former Kiwis international Robbie Hunter-Paul believes New Zealand Rugby League made the decision without consulting the players and he told the BBC they athletes will be gutted.

"From a playing point of view, I think it's even more disappointing. Now all the information starting to float to the surface saying this decision was made without the input of the players. I personally got into the game because I wanted to represent my country. There will be a lot of players that this is their last opportunity to do it and for young players it might be their first opportunity to do it and they're not going to get that opportunity," he told the BBC.

Hunter-Paul is confident the tournament can still go ahead and says removing the Kiwis and Kangaroos would further strengthen the Pacific Island teams.

"You've got Tonga, who have beaten Australia, Great Britain and New Zealand over the last four years, they're now ranked fourth in the world. If we see that talent drain from Australia and New Zealand, you'll see a much stronger Samoa, a much stronger Tonga, a much stronger Fiji. So, there will still be a vibrant competition, that will still be stacked with NRL players and players of the highest calibre."