Rugby World Cup 2019: Why typhoon controversy is a storm of World Rugby’s own making

World Rugby will be watching and waiting nervously as Typhoon Hagibis makes landfall. But it didn’t have to be this way

Samuel Lovett
Kyoto
Saturday 12 October 2019 08:15
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England v France called off due to Super Typhoon Hagibis

When Alan Gilpin, tournament director of this year’s Rugby World Cup, announced the decision to abandon two matches in light of the havoc set to be wrought by Typhoon Hagibis, with the prospect of cancelling the crucial showdown between Japan and Scotland, it was the following line that caught the eye: “What is important to note is that where we are is in accordance with what we said we would do before the tournament.”

From day one, then, it seems the plan has always been to close the shutters, shove a couple of sandbags in front of the door and stock the cupboards while praying for the best. Because, for an organisation that is meant to represent and guide the sport on the international level, there’s something discerningly rudimentary about World Rugby’s approach to the oncoming storm.

In its defence, the governing body has seemingly sought to justify its decision-making on the matter of ‘consistency’. Back to Gilpin we go. “With so many teams to move around, and to be able to deliver safely the exit of 12 teams after the pool stage, we couldn’t guarantee contingency plans consistently,” he added on Thursday. “If we can’t do it for all, we can’t do it for any.” As crisis bluster goes, the egalitarian approach ranks highly. But it still does little to conceal World Rugby’s mishandling of this situation.

In Typhoon Hagibis, the strongest storm of the year to date, the organisation has been forced into drastic measures. The level of disruption is unprecedented in the history of the Rugby World Cup. England’s meeting with France and New Zealand’s clash against Italy have been cancelled. The Pool A finale between Japan and Scotland, which will decide the outcome of the group, remains on red alert. Most worryingly, if poor weather conditions persist, the game will be scrapped. Not postponed. Consistency is key here.

So what are we now faced with? In the case of the two matches that have been called off, there was next to nothing riding on both. The Anglo-French encounter was a dead rubber, with both sides already through to the quarter-finals. As for Italy vs New Zealand, the Azzurri would have needed to inflict a humiliating, devastating defeat on their opponents to deny them a spot in the last eight. An improbable outcome, by no stretch of the imagination. But more on this later.

Although Eddie Jones suggested the “typhoon gods” were “smiling” down on his team, we can assume those travelling fans who had paid thousands to watch the game might not adopt such a blasé attitude. Similarly, for the Italians, French and New Zealanders who had turned out to follow their respective sides, World Rugby’s decision will have been met with disappointment.

There is, of course, a bigger picture here though. With 150mph winds expected to batter the country when Hagibis hits – and following Typhoon Faxai which last month killed three people – the governing body is justified in arguing that “the best interest of team, public, and tournament volunteer safety” has been made a “priority”. There are no queries on this front. Protecting lives comes first.

But could the games perhaps have been rescheduled? This is where organisers will point to the handbook. Before the tournament, it was made clear that a match which “cannot be commenced on the day in which it is scheduled... shall not be postponed to the following day, and shall be considered as cancelled.”

Eddie Jones is one of the few unfazed by World Rugby’s ruling regarding Typhoon Hagibis

But in abiding by the letter of the law, World Rugby is demonstrating its lack of joined-up thinking. It’s in times like this where common sense should be allowed to prevail. Because with so much riding on Japan and Scotland’s showdown in Yokohama – a possible first quarter-final berth for the hosts vs what would be a heroic Scottish turnaround – it begs the question: why aren’t organisers willing to push this match back?

Assuming Hagibis has left the region’s infrastructure decimated come Sunday morning, the fixture will be abandoned. Both teams will be awarded two points. Japan will go through. The Scots have rightly expressed their outrage while head coach Gregor Townsend has made clear his willingness to play out proceedings in an empty stadium, should that be the last option.

Italy, too, deserve their opportunity to face the All Blacks, regardless if that’s at a later date. You feel Sergio Parisse may have been on to something when he said: ”If New Zealand needed four or five points against us it would not have been cancelled. It is ridiculous that there was no Plan B, because it isn’t news that typhoons hit Japan.” It’s perhaps only England and France who will shrug their shoulders.

But it’s not just the Japan-Scotland sub-plot which stands to be ruined. World Rugby’s reputation is on the line. For three weeks, the tournament has been building confidently. Yes, there has been controversy: the red cards, the high tackles, the continuing question of inequality in the game. In reality, though, many will be relieved to see such conversations on the agenda. Japan 2019 still has the potential to emerge as a tournament in which rugby, under the glare of the global spotlight, takes another step forward in addressing those issues which for too long have persisted.

But all that is threatened to be undone on account of the organisers’ stubborn refusal to reschedule on account of being “consistent”. It’s a hollow defence that doesn’t stand up. It doesn’t matter that World Rugby is doing what it “said we would do before the tournament” – that just means the plans in place have been inflexible from the beginning.

In bringing the World Cup to Japan – which is no Doha when it comes to ‘adverse weather’, before anyone else questions the decision to stage the competition here – the organisation should have known that this was a possibility. "Plan B," as Parisse said, should have been in place. At best, that means moving the game to an indoor venue for the same day, playing it behind closed doors and mobilising the work force to make it happen – irrespective of what that means for broadcasters and the like. At worst, it means postponing fixtures. Given the amount of slack built into the tournament’s schedule for the knockout stages, would it really be such an issue? The turnaround will be tough, but nothing the players are not accustomed to.

And if, on both accounts, the fans are unable to attend, then so be it – they will understand we’re dealing with the laws of nature. It goes without saying that, in Scotland’s case, the supporters would rather their team handed the chance to progress than the current proposal. There’s simply too much at stake here to be asked to sit back and accept their fate.

World Rugby will be watching and waiting nervously as Typhoon Hagibis makes landfall. As will we all. But if the governing body wants to be taken seriously, it needs to be seen taking effective action in times of disruption, and applying a dose of common sense too. In many ways, this is a storm of its own making.

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