The World Cup is scheduled to open on October 23.

SYDNEY (AFP) - Australia and New Zealand on Thursday pulled out of the 2021 Rugby League World Cup in England, citing “player welfare and safety” during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In a joint statement, the world’s top two ranked nations urged the organisers to delay the tournament until next year.

They said the decision to withdraw came after considering the risk of infection in England, the worsening coronavirus environment in Australia and the time most players would be away from home under strict biosecurity conditions before the World Cup.

Australia Rugby League Commission boss Peter V’landys said they had to put player wellbeing and safety first.

“Not participating in this year’s World Cup is not a decision the Commission has taken lightly, but we must put the best interests of our players and officials first. Protecting them is our absolute priority,” he said.

“In the current environment, the risks to the safety, health and wellbeing of the players and officials travelling from Australia to participate in the tournament this year are insurmountable.”

New Zealand Rugby League chief executive Greg Peters said the decision to withdraw was in the best interests of players and officials.

“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.

“The tournament organisers have moved heaven and earth to make this work, so it is not an easy decision, but the Covid-19 situation in the UK shows no sign of improving, and it’s simply too unsafe to send teams and staff over.”

The World Cup is scheduled to open on October 23.

Defending champions Australia were to play Fiji in Hull on the opening day, with New Zealand drawn to play Lebanon in Warrington the following day.