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World Cup organisers make contingency plans for socially-distanced tournament

By Ian Laybourn, PA

Organisers of the 2021 Rugby League World Cup have drawn up contingency plans for a socially-distanced tournament.

Chief executive Jon Dutton told a media briefing he remains confident the tournament will kick off as scheduled in 12 months’ time and proceed as planned in front of full houses.

But, with continuing uncertainty over the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, Dutton admits he is looking at all options, including putting the tournament back by 12 months to 2022.

Friday marks 12 months to the day to the opening ceremony, followed by England’s first group game against Samoa, at Newcastle’s St James’ Park, and organisers are marking the occasion by opening a public ticket ballot.

“There isn’t a drop-dead day that we have to make a decision by,” Dutton said. “The period between January and March will be critical but we have to look at what the world looks like.

“We have to be agile and adapt to the circumstances but I feel incredibly positive that the tournament will happen in 12 months’ time.

“I am utterly realistic about the challenges we face but we have such a desire from people, including the UK Government, to make sure the tournament happens.

“In 12 months time Covid won’t have gone away but the world will have found a way to live with it.”

Dutton says organisers are sticking with the ambitious target of attracting 750,000 fans to the tournament while keeping their options open.

“We are still hopeful that we can have full stadia but clearly the next option is a socially-distant tournament so we’re running different models on everything down to 25 per cent all the way up to just above 50 per cent,” he said.

“The other options available to us are a postponement, which would mean moving the tournament back by exactly 12 months, and the worst-case scenario is that the tournament doesn’t go ahead.

“But what has been incredibly uplifting for me is that no-one is talking about that, everyone is talking how we stage the tournament next autumn.

“A postponement is not something we’re focused on. 2022 is an extremely busy year of sport – obviously there are the Commonwealth Games here in the UK and the FIFA World Cup – and that’s what makes our focus even stronger on next year.”

Fixtures in both Super League and the Challenge Cup have been held behind closed doors since the season resumed in August and England and Catalans Dragons full-back Sam Tomkins is desperately hoping fans are not prevented from attending the World Cup.

“It would be a massive shame,” he said. “You look at all the memorable shots from big games, whether it’s a Grand Final, a Challenge Cup final or the World Cup, you see the crowd and that adds to everything.

“Looking back to Mount Smart in Auckland in 2017, that semi-final is remembered for the oceans of Tongan fans.

“Watching the Challenge Cup final, it was just bizarre at the end of the game seeing players celebrate in front of a back drop of empty seats. It was very strange.”

Tomkins knows all about the disruption caused by the virus after the Catalans’ game against Wigan last week and Thursday’s scheduled fixture with Hull were both called off due to a spate of positive Covid-19 tests.

“Nothing surprises us this year,” he said. “You’ve got to roll with it and play whenever you can.

“It’s frustrating and difficult for everyone but the common goal is to get through this year, get to a Grand Final and put it to bed.”

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