With the final countdown to this year’s Rugby World Cup in Japan well underway, organisers are focusing their efforts on contingency planning in the notoriously earthquake and typhoon-prone country, said the tournament director, Alan Gilpin.
On the pitch, Gilpin predicted the 2019 edition of rugby’s showpiece would be the “most competitive ever” with a narrowing gap between the top 15 teams, and hosts Japan “definitely” capable of reaching their first quarter-final.
Japan is especially vulnerable to extreme weather in September, when the tournament will be in full swing, he noted.
In September last year one typhoon knocked out Osaka Airport and another lashed the whole country, forcing authorities to take the highly unusual step of cancelling public transport in Tokyo.
That month, a strong earthquake also rocked the northern island of Hokkaido, killing dozens and knocking out power.
“A lot of what we will do in the coming six months is contingency planning,” Gilpin said in an interview, adding organisers needed to plan for eventualities such as losing a stadium or major transport hub at the tournament’s height.
“It would appear that it’s that first period of the tournament — when it is still typhoon season — that we’re likely to have some issues. That is the busiest part of the tournament so we’ve got to be ready.”
One year after typhoon Trami lashed Japan, the equivalent weekend in 2019 will see five games across the country, including the blockbuster Australia-Wales encounter in Tokyo and Japan taking on high-flying Ireland, Gilpin noted.
However, he stressed it was possible to make plans even for the vagaries of the weather and seismic activity.
“Our view is that you can plan for it. You’ve just got to make sure you’ve worked through all those different permutations,” he said.
Knock-out matches can be postponed but the pool schedule is too packed for this, meaning that an apparent mismatch such as New Zealand-Namibia could be declared a draw if the elements intervene.
After some initial worries over preparations for the first World Cup not held in a traditional rugby stronghold, Gilpin said his concerns had been addressed.
With new players and improved facilities as the legacy of the six-week tournament, the 2019 World Cup could be “the most impactful ever,” he said.
“We will have taken the sport forward more than we would have done in England or New Zealand or France and that is why we’re here.”
The rugby hierarchy aims to use the World Cup as a springboard to promote the game throughout Asia and announced last month they had hit a target of one million participants in a continent seen as a huge growth area.
On the pitch, Gilpin said it could be a World Cup of shocks.
“What’s interesting is that the top 15 teams are probably closer than they’ve ever been. It’s very competitive now,” he said, noting that Fiji recently beat France for the first time.
Gilpin also mentioned grand-slam champions Ireland, who defeated the All Blacks in November, as well as “great tournament sides” Argentina and Australia as potential challengers to New Zealand’s crown.
“Probably New Zealand are feeling a bit more nervous than they have been in the past few World Cups,” he said.
By running in five tries against the All Blacks late last year, hosts Japan have shown they could be a “dangerous side” for anyone in their group that includes Ireland and Scotland.
“We’d love to see them doing well. It would really give the Japanese public something to cheer about,” he said of the Brave Blossoms.
Gilpin also clarified the tournament’s position on tattoos, worn by many rugby players but linked by some Japanese to organised crime.
He said there was no question of rugby officials demanding body ink be covered up but that players would police themselves.
“They know if they are in a public area… actually it is appropriate to cover up tattoos. And they are very comfortable with that. It’s not a question of us needing to lay out any rules,” he stressed.
“It’s a bit of a non-issue for us which has been turned into an issue here in Japan. I don’t think there’s any confusion among the teams or players.”
© Agence France-Presse (Additional edits by Marisa Kennedy)