Organisers of this year's Rugby League World Cup (RLWC2021) in England today confirmed that the event will go ahead as scheduled from October 23 to November 27, even though reigning champions Australia have still to confirm participation amidst concerns over rising COVID-19 cases in the host country.
The announcement has been made with 100 days to go to a tournament due to take place at 21 venues and to involve, for the first time, men’s, women’s and wheelchair competition.
"We are delighted to be able to provide clarity and certainty to fans, players, partners, media and those that have supported our journey over the past few years," Jon Dutton, chief executive of RLWC2021, said.
"We have an overwhelming desire to deliver the biggest and best-ever Rugby League World Cup and through our determination and decisiveness we will be able to achieve this vision.
"We recognise there are still many challenges ahead, but we will work relentlessly and will take the most extraordinary measures with the support of all involved to stage the tournament in 100 days’ time."
Speaking in a virtual media conference today, Dutton said: "We are confident that Australia will join the other 20 competing nations."
He added that there was currently "no deadline" for an agreement to be signed.
The imminent relaxation of rules in Britain next Monday (July 19), despite rising numbers of COVID-19 infections contrasts starkly with the methods being employed to combat the pandemic in Australia, where a new outbreak of cases in Sydney has forced the National Rugby League to re-locate 12 clubs.
It remains to be seen whether players adapting to those changes will welcome spending another five weeks on the other side of the world followed by a required two-weeks quarantine upon their return.
"We signed the participation agreement a little while ago now, but it’s conditional on some COVID protocols and procedures being put in place that they’ve started to move towards doing," New Zealand Rugby League chief executive Greg Peters, told stuff.co.nz:
"We want the tournament to be the best versus the best or not at all, really.
"We don’t want teams not participating or not being able to field their best teams because players have concerns about COVID.
"There are implications that are quite wide-ranging if it wasn’t to take place this year.
"Having said that, we can’t just go ahead blindly for those reasons and put people’s safety at risk."
Dutton told told media conference: "We are very respectful of the situation there, we will continue to work with National Rugby League and their players’ union.
"But we wouldn’t be making this announcement today if we didn’t have the confidence that those nations would arrive in England and compete in the tournament.
"I think it is important to recognise the quite radical difference in the approach to the pandemic here in the UK and in Australia and New Zealand.
"We’ve got to recognise what’s happening in New South Wales at the moment and what’s happening in the UK means the environment is changing.
"I would describe the bio-secure measures that we have already put in place as significant and incredibly similar to what is being experienced here at the moment in cricket, in particular with the India cricket team.
"I think the additional measures we need to put in place are small and I am very confident that we can do that over the next few weeks."
Dutton added that the social distancing measures and wearing of masks that are due to be made optional in England on July 19 would be retained within the tournament environment for "additional safety".
He also revealed that options for social distancing within stadiums or holding matches behind closed doors were being considered if it became necessary.
Dutton admitted that over the past few months postponement or cancellation of the event had been considered by RLWC2021 organisers, but added: "This tournament is so important for international rugby league.
"We have got great momentum and there is a resounding desire on behalf of the UK Government as part of the re-opening and re-building of confidence here in the UK to have this tournament go ahead.
"We’ve seen the Euro  football championships and how incredible that was, and we are also now seeing international athletes travelling around the world in a safe environment.
"Have we gone past the point of no return?
"We will stage the tournament this year."
Asked whether replacement teams were being prepared in case Australia or any other nation did not participate, Dutton replied: "In terms of replacement teams, it is a matter for the International Rugby League (IRL).
"We are working very closely with them to ensure we have replacement teams in each of the three competitions if required.
"But we are focused on welcoming the nations that have won the right to compete in this tournament."
Troy Grant, the Australian chairman of the IRL, told the conference: "From the IRL perspective the World Cup going ahead this year is critical.
"The arrival of the pandemic in 2020 meant there was no international rugby league and it was sorely missed.
“This is an opportunity for us to take a big leap forward and one that we’ve been waiting for at the international level for far too many years.
"The opportunity that would be lost by not having a World Cup this year is massive and could be significantly damaging to the international game.
"And reputationally, if soccer players can play, and tennis players - our wonderful Ash Barty can go to Wimbledon and just make a whole nation proud - we’ve got our golfers there at the Open at the moment in England.
"If they can all do that, why can’t our rugby league players also do that?"