Rugby league-NRL players' union questions World Cup withdrawal decision

(Reuters) - Australia's Rugby League Players' Association (RLPA) said on Friday it believed officials in Australia and New Zealand acted "prematurely" in deciding to pull out of October's Rugby League World Cup in England.

The RLPA, which represents players in the National Rugby League (NRL), criticised the move, which has also drawn the ire of the Rugby League World Cup organisers and Britain's sports minister.

"The news overnight that Australia and New Zealand will not compete in the 2021 World Cup is no doubt disappointing for players who were hoping to represent their nations in the tournament," RLPA chief executive Clint Newton said in a statement.

"We have had feedback from a number of players eligible for these nations stating their intentions to compete in the tournament, pending more information becoming available in the coming weeks.

"Clearly, the views of those players have not been enough to prevent this decision and we believe it has been made prematurely."

Defending champions Australia and New Zealand cited player welfare and safety concerns amid the COVID-19 pandemic for the decision to withdraw from the 16-team tournament, due to kick off on Oct. 23.

World Cup chief executive Jon Dutton, his Rugby Football League counterpart Ralph Rimmer and Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston said they were "extremely surprised and disappointed" by the move.

All players in the Australian and New Zealand squads compete in the NRL, as do many players for Tonga, Fiji and Samoa, who so far remain committed to the tournament.

New Zealand Rugby League boss Greg Peters said on Thursday the team was being withdrawn because the safety of staff and players could not be guaranteed.

"There are stark differences between how the pandemic is being managed in the UK compared to Australasia and recent developments have highlighted how quickly things can change," he said.

Meanwhile, authorities in Queensland have warned the NRL that any further breaches to a specially created biosecure bubble will see games in the state shut down immediately.

NRL teams have moved to Queensland in a bid to continue the season as coronavirus lockdowns in Victoria and New South Wales have threatened the competition's schedule.

But allegations of a series of breaches by players and their families have provoked a strong rebuke from Queensland's chief health officer Jeannette Young.

"I'm very, very concerned about what is happening with these NRL players," she said.

"This is too risky. We just cannot have people deliberately breaching the rules."

(Reporting by Michael Church, Editing by Richard Pullin)

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