South Sydney coach Wayne Bennett believes it's not his right to "deprive" any of his Rabbitohs players of competing in the Rugby League World Cup and has warned rival NRL clubs of being guilty of "a double standard".
The seven-time premiership mentor was stern in his views on the World Cup following the decisions of the Australian Rugby League Commission and New Zealand Rugby League to withdraw the Kangaroos and Kiwis respectively from the competition, set to be played in England across October and November.
Both the ARLC and NZRL opted out of the World Cup due to safety concerns for players and staff amid the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving tournament organisers to decide if it's worth going ahead with the competition without the two best teams.
Given the tireless efforts of clubs to keep the NRL and State of Origin alive during the COVID-19 pandemic, Bennett says it'd be a matter of double standards if clubs banned players from travelling to England for the showpiece event.
"Of course I would (allow my players to play in the World Cup if it went ahead). It's the players' rights. Why wouldn't I support it?" Bennett told reporters.
"The NRL and NZRL have made a decision. That's fine. But if a player wants to go and play for Samoa and Tonga, I don't see why he can't be allowed to play.
"We have made so many exceptions and exemptions to keep our competition going here.
"If England and other nations want to keep the World Cup alive, then I don't think it's our prerogative to interfere.
"I would not prevent any player I'm coaching from going. If he wanted to go and it meant that much to him and the competition was on, I don't feel I have that right personally."
Melbourne's Justin Olam (Papua New Guinea), George Jennings (Tonga) and Tui Kamikamica (Fiji) are also among those still in the frame.
"Who is going to deprive them? It's not the right of the club," Bennett said.
"We don't have an option when it comes to playing Origin or for Australia. If we refuse to play for Australia we get stood down. What's going to happen for these players that want to play for their countries?
"It's a complete double standard. If a player wants to play and the club says he can't, but if a player doesn't want to play and the game says you've got to play. There's got to be a balance there."
Every World Cup dating back to 1975 - nine have been held in that time - has either been won by Australia or New Zealand.
Such is the nature of talent development in rugby league across the globe that there are enormous discrepancies between countries like Australia and Lebanon and New Zealand and the Cook Islands.
But despite the domination of the Kangaroos and Kiwis, Bennett insists that international rugby league does not revolve around those two nations.
"Obviously England and other nations feel they committed to the World Cup and Australia and New Zealand feel they can't make that commitment," Bennett said.
"Well, that's their prerogative but it's also the prerogative of the other nations to continue with the World Cup.
"If they went of their choice and could take quality players with them it would only enhance their position.
"Life will go on without Australia and New Zealand; we are just a part of it."
However, former England coach Bennett says the England Rugby League would be gutted at the withdrawals of the Kangaroos and Kiwis.
"There's no doubt there'd be a lot of hurt. There's no doubt at all," Bennett said.
"It's in their country and they've done a lot of work towards it and all the work that has gone into it with government and local councils. They were pretty bullish about what they had done and thought it was a well-worth exercise.
"They'd be bitterly disappointed, particularly with Australia not supporting it, I'd say."
"They (Souths players) are all disappointed," Bennett said.
"They were prepared to go. Tom even postponed his marriage to go. They had no qualms. I think he (Burgess) will (go) if it is on."
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