NRL club CEOs have called for the World Cup to be postponed until next year in the belief that it will be a safer and stronger tournament in 2022.
The 16 NRL clubs issued a joint statement on Friday confirming their backing for last week’s withdrawal of the Australian and New Zealand men’s, women’s and wheelchair teams if the tournament goes ahead as scheduled at the end of the season.
A final decision is expected early next week, with RLWC2021 CEO Jon Dutton telling a media conference on Thursday night, which followed a conference call with NRL club CEOs, that it was "50-50" whether the World Cup would be staged this year.
Dutton confirmed talks had been held with representatives of Indigenous and Maori teams about replacing the Kangaroos and Kiwis if the World Cup went ahead.
However, World Cup organisers would be reluctant to continue if there were doubts about the commitment of players, with Dutton saying: "The worst scenario for us would be to forge ahead and find that other nations and other players subsequently do not get on the planes to the UK".
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Canberra Raiders CEO Don Furner, speaking on behalf of his NRL counterparts, said clubs supported players attending a World Cup - but not at the risk of their health and wellbeing.
"We all want to see a strong, safe and successful Rugby League World Cup," Furner said. "It’s clear that cannot be achieved in 2021, but we are in strong support for the tournament to be held in 2022.
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"We want the players to come home healthy. There are two massive challenges here, the UK infection rate is increasing, with the two countries being at different stages of vaccination levels and approach to dealing with the virus.
"Secondly there are several unknowns in terms of the process and protocols for players who may get exposed to COVID-19 locations and how that may disrupt the tournament, and safe passage home for players without significant risk in terms of isolation and quarantine requirements."
The clubs support the ARLC and NZRL’s decision to withdraw based on the high COVID-19 infection rate in England and onerous biosecurity and quarantine protocols for players, who have had to relocate to Queensland to enable the NRL to continue.
Rabbitohs CEO Blake Solly echoed Furner's sentiments and said his club would always support their players "reaching the pinnacle of representative football, be it All Stars, state or country" when it can be done in a safe environment.
"The NRL and its clubs have gone to great lengths and invested heavily to ensure our players remain healthy and the competition continues," Solly said.
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"These measures have been taken with an infection rate in Australia that is minimal when compared to the rate in the UK.
"This rate of infection is far too high for us to be confident the players will not contract COVID-19 during the World Cup in the UK."
Furner and Solly were among the delegation of NRL club bosses who held a Zoom meeting with Dutton on Thursday to outline why they believe the World Cup should be postponed.
World Cup organisers later released the COVID plan they had shown to the NRL clubs and players, which included details about vaccinations for players, charter flights and a quarantine hub in Australia upon their return.
"We are hugely respectful of their position and of their challenges," Dutton said.
"The welfare and wellbeing matters for players definitely came up on the call and we do respect that and understand what is happening in the NRL competition with the bubble environment.
"We absolutely understand from the New Zealand Warriors players that they have been away from their families for many weeks and months.
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"This is tough, but this is also about desire; we have a desire to stage the biggest and best ever Rugby League World Cup, but we also have a desire to do that in a responsible and respectful way."
Dutton said players would be surveyed in coming days to determine their commitment to playing if the tournament went ahead.
"We’ve certainly been in communication with the Indigenous and Maori representatives," Dutton said. "We’re quite excited by those propositions.
"We need to undertake some due diligence because obviously, they are not national teams, they are not teams that regularly exist at the moment but certainly that communication and consultation is already underway.
"They have to be sanctioned and that is why this is very much a decision for the International Rugby League.
"I think a precedent has been set … back in 2000 when a Maori team played in a World Cup, albeit under completely different circumstances.
"We want to see the best players in the world play in the tournament and if there is a way to continue to do that in 2021, we will investigate every possibility."