This year’s Rugby League World Cup in England has been postponed until 2022 after the withdrawal of champions Australia, and New Zealand.

The two countries pulled out of the tournament citing “player welfare and safety concerns” related to Covid-19. The World Cup, featuring men’s, women’s and wheelchair events, was set to start in Newcastle on 23 October.

“It became unfeasible and irresponsible for us to carry on,” said Jon Dutton, chief executive of the tournament.

“I think it will take some time for international rugby league to recover from this. I hope we can be a beacon of light.

“Certainly we’ve prioritised player voice and player choice, we know the players want to play, we took our responsibilities very seriously, and we are determined to stage the biggest and best ever rugby league World Cup.

“It’s a real shame that it cannot be this year but leadership is about making tough decisions, it’s about being responsible, and we’ve done this in the best interests of not just the tournament but of the sport of rugby league.”

Delaying the World Cup by a year could mean it clashes with the football equivalent in 2022, but Dutton said a window will be found to avoid such a scenario.

“I am disappointed that we’ve needed to take the decision to delay the Rugby League World Cup,” said Sport Minister Nigel Huddleston.

“Despite working tirelessly to explore solutions that would allow us to go ahead as planned, circumstances beyond our control have meant that postponing the Rugby League World Cup until next year is the strongest option for staging a successful tournament.”

Fresh Covid outbreaks in Australia have forced most states to reimpose restrictions, while the majority of coronavirus restrictions in England have been lifted despite a rise in cases – although those numbers appear to be falling.

There were concerns about players and staff having to quarantine for 14 days on their return to Australia, with the country’s borders currently closed because of the pandemic.

Rugby league officials estimate about 400-500 players, staff and team officials from Australia’s National Rugby League – representing several different countries – would be impacted by any quarantine measures on their return to the country after the tournament.

Those measures would mean players would only return to their NRL clubs two weeks before trial games for the 2022 season begin.

The number of those who would be affected is significantly higher when the women’s and wheelchair events are taken into consideration.

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The postponement will be a major blow to English rugby league, a sport that has been hit hard by the financial fallout of the pandemic.

The UK government has provided rugby league with more than £32m in loan support in the past year.

Australia, as 11-time and defending men’s champions, were favourites to win the tournament in England, while 2008 winners New Zealand were again poised to be contenders.

The event, regarded as one of the most inclusive sports events ever hosted in Britain, was to be staged across 16 towns and cities across England.

St James’ Park, home of Premier League football side Newcastle United, was scheduled to host the opening game between England and Samoa.

Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium was to host the men’s and women’s finals in a back-to-back spectacle on 27 November.

The postponement seemed inevitable once they decided, through the voice piece of the Australian Rugby League Commission, that they didn’t want to allow their players to compete in a World Cup in England this year.

The risk of players being exposed to the virus in this country is a valid concern, despite the RLWC 2021 organisers bending over backwards to ensure that protocols would have been in place to keep the tournament as safe as possible.