Injuries, retirements and players declaring for other nations means the positions in half of Australia's World Cup squad is up for grabs.
Former England captain James Graham says self-interest by the NRL clubs is at the heart of the decision by Australia and New Zealand to pull out of the World Cup.
The holders and 2008 champions cited player safety during the coronavirus pandemic as the reason for withdrawing from the England-based tournament, which is due to get under way on October 23 but Graham has dubbed it a “straw man argument”.
The former St Helens favourite, who has played in the NRL for St George Illawarra and Canterbury Bulldogs, has become a television pundit in Australia since retiring at the end of November’s Super League grand final.
“There are enough sporting events in the world right now that are going ahead,” he told the PA news agency.
“They are clearly motivated by things that they’re not saying. I don’t believe the motivation for not participating in this tournament to be COVID-19 or player welfare.”
Graham believes the ARL Commission has bowed to pressure from the clubs, who feared disruption to their preparations for the 2022 season by some of their players not reporting back until February due to the need to quarantine on their return from England and then take an agreed six-week holiday entitlement.
“This has always been an issue and a problem in international rugby league in terms of NRL-based players having legal entitlements and it’s easily debunked,” he said.
Graham, who played in the World Cups of 2008, 2013 and 2017, does not expect a change of heart from Australia or New Zealand but hopes their players are given the opportunity to play for other nations in the tournament.
“I can’t see them changing their mind,” said Graham.
“Part of me hopes that a majority of the 48 players denied an opportunity to play for Australia and New Zealand find another nation to represent.
“Victor Radley can play for England and Tyson Frizell for Wales again, wouldn’t that be great? I even saw Ryan Papenhuyzen put out a tweet about the Dutch coming in.
“It would be player power to say ‘we wanted to play and we’re going to play, it’s just not going to be under your banner’.
“But that’s a bit of an emotional response, to put one back on them.”
Graham, who won 44 caps for England and another nine for Great Britain, has been particularly upset by the lack of consultation and points to a survey conducted by the Australian players union, the RLPA, which claimed 75 per cent of its members wanted to go to the World Cup.
“If players decided they didn’t want to go, I don’t think anyone would begrudge them that but they haven’t even been asked and that is not fair,” he said.
World Cup organisers are continuing to weigh up their next move.