Australia and New Zealand pulled out of the rugby league World Cup as they are scared of losing rather than because of any COVID fears, according to a senior UK minister.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, Leader of the House of Commons, made the joke amid concerns in the British Parliament over withdrawals from the showpiece event to be held in England from October.
Rees-Mogg added that he expects officials will ensure the competition is run with "enormous effectiveness and ensuring COVID security is followed".
Labour's Judith Cummins, currently acting as a temporary deputy leader, later said the two countries seemed to have "bottled it".
Australia and New Zealand have faced a backlash throughout Britain over their decision to pull out.
They say it has been made because of the worsening COVID-19 situation in the UK making it "simply too unsafe to send teams and staff over".
Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle, a big rugby league fan, confirmed he would be meeting tournament organisers on Thursday afternoon to discuss the matter.
Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi added he and Government officials were also happy to meet them at some stage.
Mr Rees-Mogg, to laughter, told shadow Commons leader Thangam Debbonaire: "She mentions rugby league and the fact the Australians and New Zealanders think they're going to lose and therefore have pulled out.
"I must confess that this is rather sad, isn't it?
"I always thought the Australians, of all people - one of the countries which we in this House love most - are never ones to pull out of a competition but they think they're going to lose, so they're staying at home.
"That is a pity and I'm sure the rugby league will run the competition with enormous effectiveness and ensuring COVID security is followed."
Ms Cummins, responding to a point of order from Labour MP Marie Rimmer (St Helens South and Whiston), said she was not aware of the Government planning to make a statement to the Commons on the withdrawal.
She said: "I never thought I'd see the day when rugby union players look tougher than rugby league players.
"Yet we have the situation where rugby union is sending players here but Australia and New Zealand seem to have bottled it.
"Perhaps they are afraid of competition."
Australian Associated Press