With the lifting of legal COVID restrictions in England this week, the Rugby League World Cup confirmed that the tournament would be proceeding this year. Cue the outcry.
Of course, the spectre of COVID is never far away. There might be consternation among some about travelling to a country with 50,000 daily cases this week. That figure will in all probability rise to 100,000 in the next ten days, possibly to 200,000 by next month.
After all, the NRL relocated because of 100 cases in New South Wales (or at least because of the government response). If the tournament were being hosted in Australia, then the decision to delay would have been initiated many months ago.
But it isn’t. It’s being held in a country comfortable with such numbers, as they represent the peak of an inevitable exit wave. By the time October rolls around, those numbers will have receded to that of any other endemic respiratory virus. There are no issues from the English side about putting on this event, so it’s all systems go.
Any players nervous about contracting the virus already have the opportunity to be vaccinated in Australia. If push comes to shove, the UK can offer vaccines to players should it be required. Tournament organisers are booking charter flights and bubble protocols for those still scared.
Every fan will have sympathy for any player who chooses not to go. Bubble life is hard, particularly away from families. That clubs have had to relocate interstate indefinitely compounds the issue. But there are more than enough players willing to travel.
Fawning over health obfuscates where the trouble is emanating from. Trent Robinson, James Tedesco and Damien Cook have confirmed their intention to travel. No one has yet come out and indulged in safety histrionics à la Brad Fittler before the 2001 Kangaroos tour in the aftermath of 9/11.
Australia is the only country not to sign up. But the ARLC can choose not to recognise the World Cup, thus not obliging NRL clubs to release their players. The pushback is from clubs, nervous that they may be without a few of their players for the start of pre-season.
The frankly ludicrous crux is that players are mandated to have eight weeks break after the end of the season. As the final is at the end of November, those eight weeks, plus two in mandatory hotel detention eat into the start of pre-season preparations.
This is ridiculous on so many levels. There’s the arrogance of assuming pre-eminence over the pinnacle of the international game. There’s the fact that other sports deal with such issues all the time – England and Italy’s Euros finalists will be sunning it up while their teammates are already back training.
If they are that skittish, then the players can agree that their two-week hotel stay counts towards their eight-week break. With annual stories of Mad Monday antics, it might even be preferable for the clubs from a PR perspective.
The tournament is also a milestone in sporting equality. For the first time, the Rugby League World Cup will have women’s and wheelchair competitions run concurrently and with parity to the men’s edition. There will be equal participation fees and equal exposure on national television.
The standoffishness of the ARLC represents the height of chauvinistic selfishness from Australian men’s clubs to deny the Jillaroos and Wheelaroos the chance of glory because of pressure they are applying on the ARLC not to sign up. It screams of institutional bias, as if all the good work of the NRLW and inclusivity schemes were just box-ticking exercises.
This World Cup cannot be delayed. There is too much government funding, logistical guarantees and public awareness riding on the tournament taking place this English autumn, and not competing against the FIFA World Cup in 2022. Besides, with Australia’s zero COVID policy showing no sign of abating, there’s no guarantee that the situation would have been satisfactorily resolved next year.
Whether or not the ARLC sanction it, the World Cup is going ahead. Players might get into trouble with their clubs, but 2017 taught us that money doesn’t trump everything. The party is going ahead. The question is whether the Kangaroos – the official Kangaroos rather than an Australian select side – will be there?