Top players likely to switch allegiance to compete in Rugby League World Cup

The prospect of some of Australia’s and New Zealand’s best players switching allegiance to play for other nations if this year’s World Cup goes ahead is “highly likely” according to the chief executive of the Australian players’ union.

The Australian Rugby League Commission and New Zealand Rugby League are adamant they will not be sending squads to compete in the tournament in England later this year due to player welfare concerns regarding Covid-19, with World Cup organisers spending the weekend in dialogue with government officials trying to determine whether or not to proceed without them, or whether to postpone the event for 12 months.

Clint Newton, the head of the Rugby League Players’ Association, said he is disappointed players were not consulted over the decision. However he revealed that some stars who were likely to play for Australia or New Zealand this year could still participate in the tournament but for a different nation altogether.

Under international rugby league guidelines, players can switch between tier one and tier two nations, opening the door for established Australia and New Zealand internationals such as James Tedesco to play for Italy, David Fifita to switch to Tonga and Josh Papalii to represent Samoa. There are also dozens of others who could strengthen countries such as Lebanon, Fiji and debutants Greece.

“It’s highly likely that will happen,” Newton told the Guardian. “That may well be the decision some of our players choose to make pending further information and understanding of what the situation is in the UK. But it’s going to be down to the people who have dual eligibility making that decision. We will work with players if that’s what they want to do, and we’ll continue to work with the Rugby League World Cup team moving forward.”

Newton said that while it was possible some players may decide against travelling to the tournament due to the Covid-19 situation in the UK, the mood from many is that they still wish to participate despite the decision from the ARLC and NZRL to withdraw.

“At the end of the day, some players will no doubt choose to stay at home, but that happens all the time with international tours, particularly for that length of time,” he said. “This one has got many layers of complexity attached but yes, there are players keen to continue to take the steps forward and learn more about the state of play in England and everything connected to the process.

“There’s no disputing that there’s real disappointment for a number of players who were hoping to represent their nations in the tournament. As we’ve said, we’ve had feedback from a number of players stating their intention to compete in the tournament pending more information in the coming weeks regarding the health and safety protocols that they’ll have to comply with or manage when they’re in the UK. We remain committed to discussions on it.”

Newton also said that despite the decision from the ARLC and NZRL, the RLPA are intent on further discussions with World Cup organisers about the availability of their players if the tournament goes ahead without the Kangaroos and the Kiwis. “We’ve had productive discussions for the last three years,” Newton said.

“They’ve always maintained the position that they will not force players to participate, and our next steps are to continue to engage with all the competing nations. We’re continued to commit to work on that with the World Cup team, who have been working on a number of protocols for a prolonged period of time now.

Both nations have expressed concerns over the safety of their players at a time when Covid rates are high in the UK. Yet the Guardian has seen the documentation sent by World Cup organisers to all competing nations and organisers have spent millions on guaranteeing biosecure bubbles and chartered flights for all players and staff travelling, as well as promising to implement as safe an environment as possible for everyone involved. Each nation will also have dedicated gym and pool access across all of the host venues to minimise contact with the public, and every participating side will have a dedicated Covid-19 compliance officer.

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