The 2021 World Cup is hanging in the balance, tournament chief executive Jon Dutton has admitted.
Dutton told a press conference the chances of the tournament going ahead this autumn are 50-50 and says time is running out to make a final decision.
He does not expect Australia and New Zealand to change their minds about withdrawing from the tournament after they cited safety fears amid the coronavirus pandemic and says the options to postpone or cancel remain on the table.
Dutton says the World Cup directors have held two emergency board meetings since the bombshell announcement eight days ago and, with the NRL steadfastly seeking a postponement, he is aiming to bypass the clubs and appeal directly to their players in an effort to allay safety fears.
“We have spent five and a half years working relentlessly to make this the best-ever Rugby League World Cup and our intention as of today is to continue that journey,” he said.
“We will provide a safe environment and we refute all allegations that have been made that it would not be safe and secure for players. Yesterday we issued a bio-secure infographic to all the teams to show all the measures that have been put in place.
“We are absolutely committed to staging the tournament this year but only if we are able. We have always had alternative options and they include both postponement, as unpalatable as that is, and also not staging the event at all.”
Asked about the prospects of England kicking off against Samoa at Newcastle’s St James’ Park on October 23, Dutton said: “I think it is 50-50 but we won’t know until we listen to the players.
“We have signed a memorandum of understanding with the Rugby League Players Association and I cannot speak highly enough of Clint Newton and his team who have been very supportive.
“I think a lot of the concerns are more about well-being rather than safety. Without the players we don’t have a tournament and that’s why we need to listen to them.”
Dutton says “no one has an appetite for a postponement” and believes the revenue from better-than-anticipated commercial deals will help cover the additional costs of bio-security measures, which would include charter flights to bring the 400 or so players and officials from Australia and the cost of quarantine on their return.
Dutton says the plan is to stick with 16 teams in the men’s competition and, although United States and Serbia would be the most logical replacements after losing out in qualifying, he would be open to inviting teams representing the Indigenous All Stars and New Zealand Maoris.
Former Australia Test prop Andrew Fifita, who switched his allegiance ahead of the 2017 World Cup to Tonga, has said he would be open to playing for an Indigenous team.
Dutton says a precedent was set 21 years ago when a Maori team competed in the 2000 World Cup and revealed he has spoken to representatives of both potential teams.
“We’re quite excited by those propositions,” Dutton said. “We want to see the best players in the world play in the tournament and, if there’s a way to continue to do that in 2021, we want to investigate that possibility.
“We are working closely with the International Rugby League about the teams that would come in to replace Australia and New Zealand, both men, women and the wheelchair teams.
“We don’t want to redraw tournament so we would look at replacement teams on a like-for-like basis. Where that becomes unachievable, then we have to look at the alternative options.
“Time is not on our side. Within the next 96 hours we need to get in front of as many players as possible to speak to them and understand and allay their fears.
“We are just over 80 days away from the tournament and, although we haven’t got a drop-dead deadline date but are talking about a handful of days. I think at some point next week we will have a clear outcome.
“We understand what’s happening in the NRL, with their bubble on the Gold Coast, and we absolutely understand that the New Zealand Warriors have been away from their families for many weeks and months. We get this is tough but this is also about desire.”