The 2021 women's Rugby World Cup to be hosted in New Zealand later this year is set to be postponed, World Rugby has confirmed.
World Rugby said in a statement that it is recommending the postponement of the competition to next year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The recommendation will be considered by Rugby World Cup officials next week.
The tournament was set to take place on 18 September-16 October 2021 in Whangārei and Auckland, with the Black Ferns scheduled to take on rivals Australia on opening night at Eden Park.
"World Rugby has made the difficult decision to recommend the postponement of Rugby World Cup 2021, scheduled to be hosted in New Zealand between 18 September-16 October, until next year," the statement said. "The recommendation will be considered by the Rugby World Cup Board and World Rugby Executive Committee on 8 and 9 March respectively.
"While appreciating the recommendation is extremely disappointing for teams and fans, it has their interests at heart, and gives the tournament the best opportunity to be all it can be for them, all New Zealanders and the global rugby family.
"The recommendation is based on the evolution of the uncertain and challenging global Covid-19 landscape. It has become clear in recent discussions with key partners including New Zealand Rugby, the New Zealand Government and participating unions, 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."
World Rugby said global travel restrictions meant there was uncertainty over the ability for teams to prepare for the tournament.
"The challenges include uncertainty and the ability for teams to prepare adequately for a Rugby World Cup tournament both before and on arrival in New Zealand, and challenging global travel restrictions.
"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."
Further updates will be issued following the Rugby World Cup Board and World Rugby Executive Committee meetings next week.
The New Zealand Government said it remains committed to hosting the Women's Rugby World Cup in New Zealand in 2022 should a decision be made by World Rugby to postpone this year's tournament.
"We all wanted the tournament to go ahead as planned this year, but we also accept that the current Covid-19 constrained circumstances are not ideal for high performance athletes in a tournament situation," Sport and Recreation Minister Grant Robertson said in a statement.
"Also, preparation for the tournament in many countries has been limited, and some qualifying matches have not been able to be played. This means that many athletes in other countries will not be getting the training or the game time they need in the lead up to this major tournament.
"Ultimately this is a decision for World Rugby to make. If they do postpone we are fully committed to hosting the event next year.
"The Government is supporting NZ Rugby's hosting of the tournament with financial contributions through the Major Events Development Fund and Sport New Zealand. That support will remain in place for 2022.
"I want to acknowledge that this will be a particularly disappointing outcome for all the players if the tournament is postponed, particularly our own Black Ferns. We want to work with them to make sure they ready for the Women's Rugby World Cup here in 2022 as they have this year."
Nine teams were already confirmed to take part in the tournament: New Zealand, Australia, Wales, Canada, USA, England, France, South Africa and Fiji, with the three final places still to be determined by qualifiers.
The 2021 Rugby World Cup will be the second major women's competition scheduled for this year to be postponed.
Late last year, the 2021 women's Cricket World Cup which was also set to be hosted by New Zealand was moved to 2022 due to the pandemic.