REUTERS: This year's women's Rugby World Cup in New Zealand is set to be pushed back until next year after the sport's global governing body said on Tuesday it was difficult to host the event as planned due to uncertainties surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.
The ninth edition of the tournament is currently scheduled to be hosted in Auckland and Whangarei from Sept. 18 to Oct. 16.
A final decision is expected after the Rugby World Cup Board and World Rugby Executive Committee consider World Rugby's recommendation on March 8-9.
"World Rugby has made the difficult decision to recommend the postponement of Rugby World Cup 2021... until next year," World Rugby said in a statement.
"The recommendation is based on the evolution of the uncertain and challenging global COVID-19 situation.
"It has become clear in recent discussions with key partners... that, given the scale of the event and the COVID-19-related uncertainties, it is just not possible to deliver the environment for all teams to be the best that they can be on the sport's greatest stage."
The tournament will be the first women's Rugby World Cup to be held in the southern hemisphere, and is due to feature New Zealand, England, Canada, France, Australia, United States, Wales, South Africa, Fiji and three qualifiers.
The hosts are hoping to break the record for attendance at a women's Rugby World Cup, with the 44,000-capacity Eden Park in Auckland scheduled to host the opening match, semi-final and final.
"World Rugby can assure teams, New Zealanders and the global rugby family that the recommendation to postpone the tournament will help to ensure that Rugby World Cup 2021 will be all it can be next year for players, fans and the rugby family – one of the great Rugby World Cups," World Rugby said.
Irish Rugby's director of women’s rugby, Anthony Eddy said the news comes as a devastating blow for his team, who were due to play in a qualifying tournament in the coming weeks.
"We're obviously disappointed," said Eddy. "We want to play rugby. The Rugby World Cup deserves every opportunity to showcase the best that our sport has to offer and that's not possible in the COVID-19 environment."
With 5 million people, New Zealand has recorded just over 2,000 infections since the start of the pandemic, and 26 deaths.
Fresh novel coronavirus cases have emerged in the country more recently, however, with Auckland entering lockdown for the second time in a month last weekend.
"We are naturally disappointed but understanding of the decision," said Nicky Ponsford, the head of women's performance at England's Rugby Football Union.
"Player welfare has to be prioritised and ensuring teams both qualify on the pitch and can perform to their best at the tournament is also vitally important for the game."
New Zealand are the current holders, having defeated England 41-32 in the final in Belfast in 2017.
(Reporting by Hardik Vyas in Bengaluru; Editing by Ken Ferris and Toby Davis)