Same Time Next Year (Perhaps)

19th November 2021

I had a ticket for the match scheduled for this evening – a good one too, Category B for £70.

Today should have seen the first semi-final of the 2021 Rugby League World Cup (RLWC) with, if the seedings had worked out correctly, Australia playing New Zealand at Elland Road in Leeds. However, following the withdrawal from the tournament of the two countries’ rugby league authorities on 22nd July, the RLWC Board announced on 5th August that the event would be postponed for a year until the autumn of 2022.

The chairman of the Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC), Peter V’landys, stated that: “[W]e must put the best interests of our players and officials first. Protecting them is our absolute priority. In the current environment, the risks to the safety, health and wellbeing of the players and officials travelling from Australia to participate in the tournament this year are insurmountable”.

For some, the immediate reaction to the Australia/New Zealand announcement – apparently done by app to the RLWC organisers with a few minutes notice before a confirmation deadline – was one of apoplexy. The Chairman of the Rugby Football League, Simon Johnson, stated that it was “selfish, parochial and cowardly”. One has to suppose that relations between the sport’s principal international administrators will be more than a little strained for some time to come. However, with most of the dust now having settled, it is interesting to consider the overall circumstances of the postponement of RLWC 2021.

Mr Johnson – and others – were quick to point to the inconsistency with the approaches taken by other Australian sportsmen and women and their administrators. For example, it had been an Australian, Ashleigh Barty, who had won the Women’s Singles Title at Wimbledon in July and both Australia and New Zealand were about to compete in the Olympic Games in Tokyo (where Australia would eventually come 6th in the medal table with 46 medals, including 17 golds). The latter comparison is perhaps more easily defended, as the Olympic athletes were only in Japan for a relatively short time and obliged to leave within 48 hours of completing their event. More damning comparisons are with the Australian rugby union side, which has played Scotland and England at Murrayfield and Twickenham over the last two weekends and will meet Wales tomorrow, and the New Zealand All Blacks, who have included matches in Cardiff and Ireland on their autumn tour.

I was interested in the initial take on all this by Phil Gould – a respected and influential commentator on rugby league in Australia (and, formerly, a highly successful coach at club level and for New South Wales) – whose interview on Channel 9’s Wide World of Sports programme the day after the Australians’ withdrawal is accessible on YouTube. Gould referred to a daily infection rate of 30,000 new cases in the UK – it had actually averaged over 41,000 in the previous two weeks – and, in relation to the sport, the fact that a number of Super League matches had been cancelled in 2021 because of Covid-19 outbreaks within clubs.

Gould then noted that “[I]t will only back them [the players] up into next season. We had a short preparation for this season. We can’t do it again. Just postpone it”. He then expanded on this line of thought: “By the time they come back and quarantine and then they have 8 weeks break [part of the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the Australian authorities and players]… they don’t start training until February. Can you imagine what that’s going to look like next season… the quality of our competition?”

This is revealing, I think. It adds weight to the argument that, whilst there can be no doubt about the Australian authorities’ desire to safeguard the health of the players under their jurisdiction, the impact of their country’s Covid-19 restrictions on the pre-(2022) season preparations of the National Rugby League (NRL) clubs was also a key factor in the decision to withdraw. In its extreme form, this argument has been presented by some as Covid-19 being used as a smokescreen by the Australians to preserve the timetable of their domestic season. The Chief Executive of RLWC 2021, Jon Dutton, has referred to the “competing priorities from others” as a key reason for the postponement of the tournament.

In the period after the Australia/New Zealand announcement but before the RLWC 2021 was officially postponed, Dutton stated that the decision on whether or not the tournament would proceed this year was 50:50. At that point, it might have seemed that there were arguments for and against going ahead as scheduled; in reality, however, I suspect that the die had already been effectively cast.

One option might have been to plough on regardless. To say, in effect: ok, Australia and New Zealand are absent, so we will find two more teams instead (and make a virtue of the fact that it is a global competition). The next two teams in line might have been the United States and Serbia.

An alternative had been to field a team from the Australian and New Zealand players currently featuring in the Super League. At first, I was against the latter idea, thinking that the tournament should be for national teams only, but then I remembered that there is a good precedent. In the 2000 RLWC, my father and I had attended the match between Scotland and the Aotearoa Māori at the Firhill ground in Glasgow: a “good, hard-fought game” as I recorded in An Ordinary Spectator (which the Māori won by a single point).

In the event that RLWC 2021 had continued on schedule, England would have been the top seeds for the tournament. Had they then won it, the predictable response would have been “but Australia and New Zealand weren’t there”, to which an appropriate counter-reply might have been “whose decision was that?” However, there is little doubt that the absence of Australia and New Zealand would have hung over the tournament with consistent references to this being made in the media coverage. (Since Great Britain last won the World Cup in 1972, there have been 8 such tournaments. Australia have won 7 of them; the other – in 2008 – was won by New Zealand).

On the plus side, there would have been opportunities for the sport accruing from the fact that the absence of Australia and New Zealand would almost certainly have meant that two other countries would have reached the semi-finals that otherwise would not have done so. Let us suppose that one of those had been France, currently placed 8th in the world rankings. This would have given scope for a major promotional boost to rugby league in the country and something to supplement the recent successes of the Catalan Dragons in reaching the Super League Grand Final and the Toulouse Olympique XIII in winning promotion from the Championship.

Other factors might also have played into the thinking that the 2021 RLWC should have proceeded as planned. One was obviously the enormous amount of preparatory work that had been undertaken, not only for the Men’s event but also for the Women’s and Wheelchair tournaments. Moreover, unlike the Euro 2020 football tournament and the 2020 Olympic Games, the organisers were not certain that they could simply move things forward by 12 months without any great difficulty; some of the arrangements – the use of football grounds for the major matches, for example – were not guaranteed in a year’s time. (In the event, only 5 of the planned 61 fixtures across the three tournaments have been affected in the re-scheduling for next year).

Related to this is the pride of place that the 2021 RLWC organisers had obtained within the television schedules; the BBC had signed up for extensive coverage of all three tournaments in a period in which there was relatively little competition from other sporting events. In 2022, the autumn sports schedule will be more crowded with the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham (which are scheduled to end on 8th August) and the FIFA World Cup in Qatar (which kicks off on 21st November). This has still provided a window for coverage of the postponed RLWC – the 3 tournament finals of which are now scheduled for a year today (19th November 2022) – but it is not yet clear that there will be the same amount of attention from the national broadcaster.

Against this background – and given the precise circumstances of the withdrawal by Australia/New Zealand – it must have been tempting for the 2021 RLWC organisers to have sought to confirm their pre-eminence in matters relating to the tournament, rather than seeming to have had its fate at least partly determined by the pre-season training schedules of the clubs in Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL).

It was here that the matter was resolved, however. Yes, the NRL clubs hold the cards as far as the participation of the Australian and New Zealand national sides are concerned (via the NRL’s obvious influence on the ARLC). But they are also the employers of the core of other national sides which, whilst they might still have entered the tournament, would have been substantially weakened if their NRL-based players had not been allowed to participate. It was the undermining of the full-strength sides from the Pacific Islands – Tonga, Fiji and Samoa – that, in addition to the complete absence of Australia and New Zealand, dealt the fatal blow to holding the RLWC this year. (There would also have been significant absences of players drawing on their heritage to represent Greece, Italy and the Lebanon). In the announcement of the postponement of the tournament, the RLWC organisers referred to the “non-release of up to 400 players, match officials and staff members from the NRL competition”.

It is the case, of course, that any discussion of the postponement of the RLWC must acknowledge the vastly different approaches to dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK and Australia/New Zealand. The day before the official postponement of the tournament, the official number of deaths in the UK of those who had contracted Covid within the previous 28 days reached exactly 130,000; in Australia and New Zealand, the corresponding figures were 925 and 26, respectively. In contrast with the UK’s apparently ever-changing set of regulations governing social distancing and (especially) overseas travel, Australia and New Zealand have attempted to maintain what have effectively been national bubbles – especially once the Delta variant of the virus took hold elsewhere – with, within that constraint, several strict lockdowns in the major cities.

Although it was the case that the UK initially saw much faster rates of take-up of first and second vaccinations, Australia and New Zealand have now caught up. As of yesterday, according to the three national statistics offices, the proportions of the populations aged 12 and over in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, who had had the second jab, stood at 80.1 per cent, 82.9 per cent and 82.1 per cent, respectively. In the meantime, the infection rate in the UK remains high: it averaged over 36,000 new cases each day in the first half of this month. Who is to say that the Australian rugby league authorities did not make the correct decision?

It is clear from the world’s near-two year experience of dealing with Covid-19 that making accurate predictions about its future incidence and mortality rates is very difficult. The RLWC has been postponed until the autumn of 2022, but, at this stage, we cannot be confident about what impact the pandemic will still be having on the state of global health in 12 months’ time. More specifically, can anyone guarantee that the Australian and New Zealand rugby league authorities would still not be arguing that the risks to the health and safety of the players and officials travelling from Australia would be “insurmountable”.

One final thought – and another regret – with regard to the postponement of the RLWC 2021. In the union code, the much-hyped event of the summer was the British Lions three-match test series in South Africa (which commenced a couple of days after the Australia/New Zealand withdrawal). It is generally agreed, even by the keenest supporters of the 15-man code, that, as spectacles, the first two matches in this series were absolutely awful, both sides seeming to rely entirely on kicking the ball to gain ground and compete for possession in the opponents’ half of the field. The third match was little better. (The former Scotland coach, Matt Williams, spoke for many when he referred to “a horror series”). What a shame that the advocates of the league code have not had the opportunity to spotlight their sport this year by making the comparison with their brand of international competition and its much higher incidence of running with and passing the ball.

Let’s hope that opportunity re-presents itself in a year’s time.

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