Last September, with a year to go until tournament kick-off, World Rugby were busy ticking boxes.
To mark the final countdown to their premier competition, they rolled out the usual stats from numbers of visitors to economic benefits. Chairman of the governing body Bill Beaumont added that he believed “in the tremendous opportunity to further the sport across Asia, and I am delighted to say that with a year to go, we are confident that Japan 2019 will be a very special, successful and game-changing”. That same month, what had seemingly bypassed all within the hierarchy was that the strongest tropical cyclone in 25 years had just made landfall in Japan.
Typhoon Jebi had powered its way through a part of the nation with a couple of stadia that would be hosting a total of eight World Cup games, as it killed 12, caused 500 injuries, shut down Kansai International Airport completely due to flooding, and left 3,000 people stranded there when a fuel tanker was blown into a bridge thus closing the road out. The insurance cost next to the human cost wasn’t important, but it still reached well past a staggering €13bn.
Therefore it’s not like there haven’t been plenty of warnings for World Rugby over the years.
The same day back in 2008 that they said was the deadline for willing hosts to declare an interest, Typhoon Vongfong was merely brushing by Japan although it did enough damage to kill one and leave 15,000 without power, as 139 roads were damaged by 54 major landslides.
Meanwhile, on 9 September 2015, Tropical Storm Etau saw 2.8 million people evacuated while eight tragically lost their lives, with another €2bn of damage caused. Yet a couple of weeks after it, when World Rugby approached the organising committee regarding their plans, the majority of their concern was directed at whether or not a new national stadium would actually be built.
In the land that previously best demonstrated Roy Keane’s mantra of fail to prepare and prepare to fail, we’ve had perhaps the best example of that in major sporting history. What a farce.
Especially when you consider that this latest storm wasn’t some freak weather event.
The country is prone to this, especially during this stint on the calendar. With around 26 cyclones forming on average per year, crunching the numbers since the 1950s shows that three batter Japan per annum. September and into October is prime time for them, but the locals tend not to worry. As the nation’s own tourism agency explains, “Notwithstanding scientific and statistical data, typhoons in Japan are in fact little feared by the population, just like earthquakes. They are so frequent that the Japanese have gotten used to them”.
In essence, they are a part of life there. Strange then that such a common event was never taken into account.
World Rugby are happy to parade their triumphs and, on this occasion, were trumpeting out the 20 broadcast territories, the 3,000 media in attendance, the 400,000 international visitors and so on. Such figures are of course bloated to bullshit levels – and it is far from rugby that engages in this type of nonsense hyperbole – but it’s time to hoist them by their own exaggerated petard.
With all of that interest, with all those eyes watching, what exactly have they been doing?
Did they never consider all those people, and all those typhoons?
Did not one person among all those junkets and inspections ever wonder what if?
Did no one ever say it’s unlikely, but just in case we’d better have a back-up plan?
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Had this not been Japan, a place known for its efficiency and emergency capability, World Rugby could have been in serious trouble as their own lack of ability backed them into a terrible corner.
For instance, had Scotland been eliminated by weather rather than the breath-taking rugby of Japan and all those players they paid to be Japanese, the lawyers were on this. On the one hand, to cancel that game would have hugely reduced the integrity of the tournament; on the other hand to move the game to a different day or venue would have railed against World Rugby’s own rules and seen different standards applied to different teams in a show of hypocrisy and bias.
With panic setting in, what we got was mixed signals.
There was talk of cancelling that key fixture. Next, there was talk of moving it to Monday. Then there were whispers of bringing it to Oita in the south of the country and out of harm’s way.
As Gregor Townsend said after his team’s win over Russia, “I’m sure alternative venues and arrangements are being looked at, not just for our game but other games that could be affected, like England v France in the same stadium on Saturday”. His thinking was far too advanced for, at times, this felt like some junior competition from before the war where the Munster champions failed to make the final in Carlow by bike meaning a walkover was contentiously awarded.
Can you imagine if it was Ireland left waiting it out in the build-up to their decisive game, unsure that it would actually be played? And do you really think if it was New Zealand that needed a win against Italy to go through that the fixture would’ve been called off?
For a month we’ve been waiting through boredom and bad beatings for this weekend. A month where there’s been so many days with no rugby and so many days with meaningless rugby. Before lunch on Wednesday, the Irish Independent’s Cian Treacy tweeted out the score difference in the previous 14 games. It grimly read 61, 30, 59, 2, 62, 19, 20, 35, 46, 35, 35, 63, 24, 34. Next up on deck was Wales-Fiji which claimed to be some sort of cliffhanger when in fact the gap was double digits. All that rubbish and when it finally mattered there was no time or space.
Ultimately France never got a chance at an easier quarter-final because World Rugby didn’t do their job; Italy’s players and fans were told to go home without one last long shot at progression, with Sergio Parisse denied a farewell while Leonardo Ghiraldini broke down in tears at the news having spent months working his way back from a knee injury for that very occasion; Scotland spent the days in the lead-up to their defining moment wondering if it would even exist; and while we might turn our heads, those from Namibia and Canada were denied a shot at taking a victory home with them, as well as the memories of such a result that would last for many years.
While the storm may have passed, don’t think the impact of this is over either.
For the ramifications of cancelled matches doesn’t end here as they filter on down the line.
In a game of attrition and in a gruelling tournament in terms of physicality and length, it means that next weekend three of the four quarter-finals see a well-rested team against one who was going at it across the weekend. That includes Ireland who are at a significant disadvantage now.
Yet it could so easily have been solved. From early last week the doubts arose as everyone knew that Typhoon Hagibis would likely be arriving in the Greater Tokyo area on Saturday, however all that those in charge could do was release baffling statements devoid of any action.
Could they not have agreed to move games a day forward or back for the sake of fairness? Could they not have moved games to venues in other parts of the country well in advance, allowing fans to make their way there on the country’s superb transport infrastructure? Turns out, no.
To get answers has proven particularly difficult too. After all, Rugby World Cup Limited is actually located on the second floor of a building in Douglas, Isle of Man, and has no phone number. Perhaps that’s fitting, given what we’ve witnessed and the effect it’s had on this World Cup.
Twenty-four years after going pro, those running rugby are still seemingly clinging to the amateur era.