The Australian rugby league tour to Britain has become the first major sporting casualty of the military strikes by America and its allies on Afghanistan. The Kangaroos were due to fly in – over the Middle East – on Sunday for a seven-match tour, including three Tests.
The visit, their first full tour since 1994 and intended to revive a famous tradition, was cancelled yesterday morning after half of the players selected said that they were concerned about their safety and did not want to make the trip. Originally, only five of the most senior tourists were against the tour, but that opposition grew yesterday to 12 of the 24.
"Five years ago I would have been one of the first on the plane, but the older blokes have different priorities," said Andrew Johns, widely regarded as the world's best player and a voice against the tour. The other view – expressed by the prop Jason Ryles, saying he would "play in Afghanistan if they wanted me to" – lost the argument.
After a meeting in Sydney yesterday, the chairman of the Australian Rugby League, Colin Love, delivered the bad news. "Whilst certainty for any activity cannot be assured in life, many of the players felt that there was an unacceptably high level of uncertainty surrounding a seven-week tour," he said.
"I can understand the feeling of concern by the players and their families. I know that for many of them it was their first opportunity to tour and that they also feel a profound sense of disappointment."
If they are disappointed in Australia, however, that is nothing compared to the feelings in Britain, where the visit of the Kangaroos was viewed as the only way to start rebuilding the game's international profile.
Apart from the blow to the game's already battered international credibility, the financial implications for the game in Britain are dire. The income from the tour was badly needed in order to balance the books and to finance its development plans at a time when, even in its heartlands, the game is in competition with rugby union.
Although the RFL was saying nothing on the matter yesterday, it is likely to pursue the ARL for compensation – arguing that there was no good reason for the tour not to take place. Its chairman, Sir Rodney Walker, said: "We will need time to reflect on short and long-term implications of the Australian Rugby League's decision.
"Some of the implications are very serious for both the Rugby Football League and the international game. There's no doubt that the Australian decision is a bitter blow. While we can understand to an extent their players concern about the world situation, we have sought to assure them that life in Britain is carrying on normally and that the security situation both here and the rest of Europe is stable.
"I do hope that the Australian game as a whole is fully aware of the impact this decision will have on the game outside their country.
"Greg McCallum, our executive director of rugby, has moved heaven and earth to reassure the Australians of the position here and nobody could have done any more to assure them of their safety and security while in this country."
If that was the diplomatic line, the mood elsewhere in the game is one of having been betrayed, and there will now be deep embarrassment if rugby union's Wallabies make the journey that the Kangaroos would not. "The cost is incalculable," said a RFL spokes-man.
The Tests alone could have produced a turnover of more than £2m – lifeblood for a governing body which is heavily in debt and only has international fixtures and the Challenge Cup as sources of income.
There is also bitter disappointment among British players. "We felt we had a good squad this season and wanted to test ourselves against the Australians," said their captain, Andy Farrell. "I feel sorry for the Australian lads who wanted to come, especially those who haven't played for Australia before."
The RFL could appeal to the ARL to change its mind but it is unlikely that any attempt will be successful.
The Great Britain coach, David Waite, told a group of players the news at a training session yesterday, but urged that preparations – including the match in France on 26 October – should go ahead.
"The important thing is that we pick a squad and see international rugby league played," he said. The League is meeting again today to discuss what form that could now take. Assuming that the Kangaroos cannot have their minds changed, finding any other credible opposition at this short notice is likely to be difficult.Reuse content