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COVID vaccine roll-out key to World Cup

A decision on the World Cup is set to be made in late March but organisers remain hopeful it will be one of the first major events in England this year to be played before capacity crowds.

While RLWC2021 CEO Jon Dutton admits the United Kingdom is currently "in the eye of the COVID storm", he believes the extensive vaccination program underway could be a "game-changer" for the nation and the tournament.

The fate of football's 2021 European Championships in June and July is also due to be decided in March and that may have an influence on whether the World Cup goes ahead as scheduled from October 23.

"We really appreciate that what you are experiencing in Australia is radically different to what we are experiencing in the UK, and that is why we want to get across the absolute reality of the situation and how we are dealing with it," Dutton told NRL.com.

Tonga celebrate a win over Australia.
Tonga celebrate a win over Australia. ©Renee McKay/NRL Photos

"We are not burying our heads in the sand, we are not saying everything is okay – far from it – but we want to make calm and rational decisions.

"If we come to a point where it is not safe for athletes to travel or it is not safe to get people into stadiums we might have to make those very difficult decisions but that time is definitely not now."

Dutton said there were three contingencies under consideration for the World Cup and officials were in almost daily contact with the UK Government as COVID infection rates continue to surge during winter.

The Jillaroos celebrate a try in the World Cup final against the Kiwi Ferns.
The Jillaroos celebrate a try in the World Cup final against the Kiwi Ferns. ©Gregg Porteous./NRL Photos.

"I guess the race at the moment is for the vaccine to overtake the virus and that is not going to happen for the next few weeks," Dutton said.

"We have got to get through January and February, which here in the UK will be really bad, but there is definitely a hope that from March onwards, when we get to spring in the UK, that the environment will change.

"What we are trying to reassure people is that there is no sense of panic, we have still got time on our side.

"We have always said we would look at things in January, which we are doing, but any significant decision would be in spring [starting on March 20].

"We have got three scenarios; we have a gold scenario, which is running the tournament in the way we had hoped. We are still planning for that and ticket sales before Christmas massively exceeded all expectations.

"The silver standard is still to run the tournament from October 23 but under social distancing and that will form part of the ramp-up plan when fans are allowed back into stadia in the UK.

"The bronze standard is to postpone the tournament and move it back 12 months."

New Zealand perform the Haka ahead of their World Cup clash with Scotland in Christchurch.
New Zealand perform the Haka ahead of their World Cup clash with Scotland in Christchurch. ©Nathan Hopkins./NRL Photos.

A seven-figure sponsorship deal and ticket sales across all 61 games of the men’s, women’s and wheelchair tournaments has put the World Cup in a strong financial position.

"We went through a really tumultuous year in 2020 but we have come out of it in a positive place and we have just got to navigate through the next couple of months," Dutton said.

"The World Cup is critically important to the UK Government. It might be the first event back with full crowds in the UK and for that reason it is very important to the Government.

"The World Cup is the jewel in the crown of international rugby league and we still think we can stage something that is transformative and helps the international rugby league flourish in the future."