Gerry Thornley: World Rugby had no Plan B as tournament is blown off course
If any country on the planet could relocate or defer big games it is surely Japan
No matter what happens from here on in, the ramifications of this weekend’s cancellations will linger long into the 2019 Rugby World Cup, and the tournament itself will forever have an asterisk alongside it.
In all of this, of course, it’s worth stressing that if the decision to cancel the New Zealand v Italy and England v France games saves even one life, then it will have been entirely worth it.
Furthermore Super Typhoon Hagibis, the biggest of the 19 to have hit Japan in their rainy season, is estimated to be three times as fierce as the typhoon which caused the loss of three lives and massive disruption across the greater Tokyo area the week before the World Cup started. This World Cup has also been unlucky in that the typhoons have continued later into October than is normally the case.
However, given the inherent risks in hosting the tournament at this time of year, and that World Rugby and the Japan Rugby 2019 Organising Committee have had near on a decade to plan for this, their supposedly “robust contingency plans” appear to have consisted of saying another mass.
Relocating matches to other venues or deferring them for 24 or 48 hours are options which appear to have been ruled out entirely, on the basis that this would be logistically too difficult. Yet if any country on the planet could relocate or defer games it is surely Japan.
To begin with, as Joe Schmidt highlighted today, the first losers are Italy, for whom a game against the All Blacks at this World Cup might have been a last match in charge for coach Conor O’Shea, and ditto as captain for Sergio Parisse.
Parisse most likely spoke for many others when observing: “It is difficult to know that we won’t have the chance to play a match against one of the great teams. If New Zealand needed four or five points against us it would not have been cancelled.
“It is ridiculous that a decision of this nature has been made because it isn’t like the fans arrived yesterday. It is ridiculous that there was no Plan B, because it isn’t news that typhoons hit Japan.
“Sure everyone might think that Italy versus New Zealand being cancelled counts for nothing because we’d have lost anyway, but we deserved to be respected as a team. We had the chance to play in a big stadium, against a great team. The alternative is Plan B. When you organise a World Cup you should have one in place. Sure, if Italy and New Zealand needed the points it wouldn’t have been cancelled.”
Nor was it a case of adding to his haul of 142 caps, one ahead of Brian O’Driscoll in second place and six behind Richie McCaw.
“We don’t care about caps. I don’t play rugby to count my caps, it is good to win them but it isn’t about my caps it is about the team.”
Similarly, it could be argued that England may well have beaten France anyway before their Pool D decider was cancelled and declared a 0-0 draw. But not only is this also highly unsatisfactory, it has ramifications deep into the tournament. Eddie Jones quipped that the Typhoon Gods are smiling on him as he relocated his squad away from the eye of the storm back to the training base in the southern coastal island of Miyazaki, where England began their tournament.
However, it means that his players avoid the risk of injury this weekend and now have a 15-day gap between what now transpires to be their final pool game against Argentina and a quarter-final, potentially against Australia.
Privately France will not feel too bothered either as they are also avoiding the risk of injuries against England while now having a 13-day turnaround before their quarter-final, most likely against Wales.
South Africa were already due a helpful 12-day turnaround between beating Canada and their quarter-final, while the All Blacks will now enjoy a free weekend and a 13-day build-up to their quarter-final.
Even all of this would be thoroughly eclipsed were Japan’s Pool A finale in Yokohama on Sunday against Scotland to be cancelled, a decision which the organisers said will be made on the morning of the match after the full extent of the damage of Super Typhoon Hagibis is be assessed.
Were this game to be cancelled, of course, it would ensure that Japan qualify as pool winners, and presuming Ireland pick up at least a bonus point against Samoa on Saturday, Scotland would be eliminated. This would also consign Ireland to a quarter-final against New Zealand on Saturday week even if they beat Samoa with a bonus point, as Japan would also finish on 16 points and have the better head-to-head record.
Ala Parisse and the Italians, the Scots clearly believe that if the shoe had been on the other foot and Japan had needed a win to progress, every effort would have been made to afford the hosts an opportunity to qualify.
The Scotland camp is incandescent about the prospect of World Rugby not relocating or deferring the game. A Scottish Rugby spokesperson said: “We are in regular dialogue with World Rugby at all levels to work to ensure our fixture against Japan on Sunday can be played as planned. Public safety is the clear priority.
“With potential impact on our last Pool A fixture, Scottish Rugby fully expects contingency plans to be put in place to enable Scotland to contest for a place in the quarter-finals on the pitch, and will be flexible to accommodate this.”
Gregor Townsend had risked being hoist by his own petard when asked about the possibility of the Ireland-Samoa game being cancelled when Typhoon Hagibis was first forecast to hit Fukuoka at the weekend. “Well, it it’s cancelled, it’s cancelled. The rules are the rules.”
The Scottish head coach has now, understandably, changed his tune slightly, and at a hastily arranged press conference today, commented: “We believe the game hasn’t been cancelled because the weather forecast is much improved for Sunday.”
Expressing the hope that an alternative venue could also be arranged, even if behind closed doors, Townsend added: “What do we need? We need officials, we need players. The way I read the rules was that you can’t change days but you could change venues and contingencies would be in place.
“I’ve since been told there is force majeure (measures in the rules) and things can change because of exceptional circumstances. If that means Monday because it takes a day for things to be put back in order then who knows? But right now I think they’re planning on it going ahead on Sunday.”
Yet this World Cup has proved to be inflexible compared to almost all other major sporting events, despite the tournament director Alan Gilpin admitting that the vagaries of Japan’s weather was “a real hot topic for us” – and that was September last year.
That will seem laughable for the tens of thousands of fans who’ve booked expensive trips to take in this weekend and, in the event of their teams’ games being cancelled, will only have their overpriced tickets refunded.