Former England captain James Graham says self-interest by the NRL clubs is at the heart of the decision by Australia and New Zealand to pull out of the World Cup.

The holders and 2008 champions cited player safety during the coronavirus pandemic as the reason for withdrawing from the England-based tournament which is due to get under way on October 23 but Graham has dubbed it a “straw man argument”.

The former St Helens favourite, who has played in the NRL for St George Illawarra and Canterbury Bulldogs, has become a television pundit in Australia since retiring at the end of November’s Super League Grand Final.

“There are enough sporting events in the world right now that are going ahead,” he told the PA news agency.

“They are clearly motivated by things that they’re not saying. I don’t believe the motivation for not participating in this tournament to be Covid or player welfare.”

Graham believes the ARL Commission has bowed to pressure from the clubs, who feared disruption to their preparations for the 2022 season by some of their players not reporting back until February due to the need to quarantine on their return from England and then taking an agreed six-week holiday entitlement.

James Graham
James Graham is not convinced the withdrawals are based on player welfare (PA)

“This has always been an issue and a problem in international rugby league in terms of NRL-based players having legal entitlements and it’s easily debunked,” he said.

“In 2017 the World Cup didn’t finish until December. Just because you are entitled to your leave doesn’t mean you have to take it, there’s a bit of give and take with most clubs.

“What tends to happen is that there’s an agreement between the clubs and their players. It’s a straw man argument.”

Graham, who played in the World Cups of 2008, 2013 and 2017, does not expect a change of heart from Australia or New Zealand but hopes their players are given the opportunity to play for other nations in the tournament.

“I can’t see them changing their mind,” said Graham, who has called for the creation of a think tank to shake up the international game. “I really do hope I’m wrong but they’re not the type to do a U-turn on this.

“Part of me hopes that a majority of the 48 players denied an opportunity to play for Australia and New Zealand find another nation to represent.

Tyson Frizell
Tyson Frizell could play for Wales in the World Cup (Mike Egerton/PA)

“Victor Radley can play for England and Tyson Frizell for Wales again, wouldn’t that be great? I even saw Ryan Papenhuyzen put out a tweet about the Dutch coming in.

“It would be player power to say ‘we wanted to play and we’re going to play, it’s just not going to be under your banner’.

“But that’s a bit of an emotional response, to put one back on them.

“What we probably need is to get some really good minds together and come up with a plan to grow the game at international level.

“It’s something that needs to be looked at very carefully by some people who don’t have self-interest at heart.

“And it’s not just the NRL, clubs in the UK are just as guilty at having self-interest at the forefront of their minds.

“I get it, I understand it, but if you want to grow the game internationally you’ve got to let go of that.

“I know how important it is to get this right for the future of our game, both in England and internationally.”

Graham, who won 44 caps for England and another nine for Great Britain, has been particularly upset by the lack of consultation and points to a survey conducted by the Australian players union, the RLPA, which claimed 75 per cent of its members wanted to go to the World Cup.

“If players decided they didn’t want to go, I don’t think anyone would begrudge them that but they haven’t even been asked and that is not fair,” he said.

“Having played at the top level for 17 or 18 years, some of my fondest memories and some of my proudest moments were the ability to represent my country and the people that did so much for me in my career.

“The players are going to miss out on that opportunity and the fact is they weren’t even consulted or given an opportunity to ask questions.”

World Cup organisers are continuing to weigh up their next move. An emergency board meeting was convened following the sudden announcement and members agreed to reconvene in the middle of this week to formulate their next step.

James Graham
James Graham played in the World Cups of 2008, 2013 and 2017 (PA)

A statement read: “The Rugby League World Cup 2021 have held an emergency Board meeting following the hugely disappointing statement made by ARLC and NZRL.

“The Board conducted constructive discussions on the best way forward for the tournament and will continue dialogue with all stakeholders, including the UK Government, in the coming days.

“The well-being of all those involved in the tournament, particularly players and team officials, have been the priority for the organisers.

“The Board reiterated the relentless hard work and extraordinary measures that have been taken to create a world class environment in line with other major sports event that have been successfully hosted in UK this year.

“The Board will meet again in the coming days but in the meantime will continue to concentrate its efforts on being solutions focused and achieving the best possible outcome for the tournament.”