"I am concerned at the prospect of losing players and them not being replaced":
Tim Sheens

"I am concerned at the prospect of losing players and them not being replaced": Tim Sheens. Photo: Peter Rae

Fears that NRL players participating in next month's World Cup in Britain could be served with Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority infraction notices and be sent home have thrown the tournament strategies and selection plans of the 14 competing nations into disarray.

Rules state that once the five-week tournament begins, none of the nominated 24 players per nation can be replaced.

With the opening match scheduled for October 26, Australia's coach, Tim Sheens, admits ASADA sanctions could deprive him of a number of key players.

"I am concerned at the prospect of losing players and them not being replaced," Sheens said. "It's not just Australia. Every squad could have someone. There are NRL players from New Zealand and the island nations of the Pacific who could be caught up in it."

The revelation that three Roosters have recorded elevated levels of human growth hormone has extended the code's drug probe beyond those caught up in the Cronulla enquiry, but it would be unfair to exclude a player from World Cup selection merely on suspicion.

ARLC general manager Andrew Hill confirmed the widespread impact of the problem.

"The NRL will provide approximately 125 players across all nations to the tournament," he said. "Australia can choose only 24. This means there are 100 NRL players representing other countries who could be subject to ASADA bans. It is a 14-nation issue, not just an Australian one.

"The current rule is that once a nation submits its list of 24, a player can only be replaced if the circumstances put forward to the World Cup tournament director results in him making a decision allowing a replacement."

Hill said the magnitude of the ASADA situation could force World Cup organisers to change the rule, allowing competing nations to call upon players to replace those expelled from the tournament.

The tournament director, England's Nigel Wood, has been briefed and has prepared a contingency plan.

"The board of the Rugby League World Cup and the international federation will consider a proposal at their board meeting next month to allow players served with ASADA infraction notices to be replaced," Hill said.

Each nation was asked months ago to submit a list of 40 players from which the final 24 would be nominated.

It is unclear whether replaced players must be drawn from the original 40 but it appears World Cup squad members served with ASADA notices between the announcement of the selected 24 and the kick-off to the tournament could be substituted.

Replacing players after October 26 is a more contentious issue but, given the scale of the problem, it is likely the IRLB will allow last-minute changes.

Sheens anticipates a furious response from the English media if a number of Australian players are expelled.

"The UK media, not just the northern media, would come out of the woodwork if we had players sent home," he said.

"I was over there when they won the cricket and, on top of the Lions and Wimbledon victories . . . We've got to be careful we don't get ambushed."

However, Hill said England had a number of NRL players in its possible squad.

"They've got six to eight NRL players in their starting side, including the Burgess brothers at Souths, Gareth Widdop at the Storm and James Graham with Canterbury," he said, while not inferring they were under any suspicion for the use of banned supplements.

Hill said there would be no latitude extended to a player who tested positive to a banned substance during the tournament, which ends on November 30 at Old Trafford, Manchester.

"If any player tests positive from the World Cup, he will not be replaced," Hill said.

Sheens has been meeting regularly with the Australian selectors, but injury and possible ASADA sanctions are clouding decision-making over the final list of 24 Kangaroos.

ASADA works to its own timetable, independent of football finals and international tournaments, meaning infraction notices can be served at any time.