Scotland’s hopes of progressing in the Rugby World Cup appear precarious after the sport’s governing body was forced to make huge decisions today ahead of the potentially devastating Super Typhoon Hagibis hitting Japan at the weekend.
The Scots are scheduled to face the hosts in the most anticipated game of the pool stage at Yokohama International Stadium on Sunday. After the 61-0 thrasing of Russia in Shizuoka yesterday, Gregor Townsend’s men set-up a decider with Japan over who makes the quarter-finals.
However, the gathering storm Hagibis, which is being predicted as the fiercest in the world this year, is now forecast to wreak havoc on the Tokyo-Yokohama area. England’s final Pool C match against France in Yokohama on Saturday, with both teams already qualified for the quarter-finals, has been cancelled and, under tournament rules, deemed a 0-0 draw with two points awarded to each team. England have now won Pool C on 17 points, with France in second place.
The New Zealand v Italy game in Toyota, in which the Azzurri had a slim hope of still reaching the last eight, has also been scrapped.
World Rugby said today that the Japan-Scotland game was “under review”.
“Every effort is being made to ensure Sunday’s matches will be played as scheduled,” said the governing body in a statement issued after a press conference in Tokyo.
“A thorough assessment of venues will take place after the typhoon has passed before a final decision is made on Sunday morning.”
The position remains unclear as to whether there is any contingency to postpone the game until Monday. Currently, tournament rules say any pool stage game that cannot be completed on the scheduled date must be deemed a 0-0 draw, which would eliminate Scotland.
An SRU spokesman 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.”
After yesterday’s match in Shizuoka it was understood that Scotland were pushing for a venue switch to Kobe, to the indoor Misaki Stadium where they beat Samoa 34-0 last Monday, but that option was not mentioned by World Rugby today.
It is believed that Scotland's main line of argument will be to point out that the tournament rules are subject to World Rugby's judgment, and a plea to consider wielding these powers if the circumstances are appropriate.
Within the tournament regulations there is allowance for force majeure which includes a "storm or tempest" in the participation agreement signed by competing teams over matches that cannot be played.
The Scotsman understands that the SRU will be making firm representation that if deemed unplayable on the Sunday, a rescheduling if public safety is assured, on the Monday or a change of match venue should be the course of action pursued.
“The decision to cancel matches has not been taken lightly,” said Rugby World Cup tournament director Alan Gilpin.
“It has been made with the best interest of team, public, and tournament volunteer safety as a priority based on expert advice.”
What was described as an "initial statement" from the SRU 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.”
The Super Typhoon is expected to clear by Sunday morning, when tournament chiefs will stage a “comprehensive review” to see if the four scheduled games - including Scotland's crunch with Japan - can proceed as planned. The deadline for a final decision is six hours before kick-off.
Even if the storm has cleared it remains to be seen what destruction it has caused, with the height of the typhoon expected to cause carnage on Saturday. Typhoon Hagibis is set to vastly eclipse the earlier Typhoon Faxai, which wreaked havoc on the Tokyo area a couple of weeks before the tournament started, killing three people, injuring 147 and causing mass power outages, evacuations and transport chaos.
"We are continuing to review Sunday's matches and make every effort to ensure they are as played as scheduled," added Gilpin.
"A thorough assessment of the venues will take place after the typhoon has passed before a final decision is made on Sunday morning."
Gilpin added that World Cup organisers had looked "exhaustively" at contingency plans around moving or rearranging matches, before deciding that was unfeasible on both logistical and safety grounds.
“The risks are just too challenging to enable us to deliver a fair and consistent contingency approach for all teams and participants and importantly to provide confidence in the safety of spectators,” he said.
A force of nature like this is in the “act of God” realms but tournament organisers are now under extreme pressure. If Scotland were to be knocked out without a ball kicked against Japan, with the precedent of Italy now set, there will be justified uproar.
A few days ago when it seemed the typhoon may be headed for southern Japan, the word out of the Ireland camp was that the Dublin-based governing body was desperate to ensure their match in Scotland’s Pool A against Samoa would go ahead, with a move from Fukuoka to Oita if necessary.
With the shift in weather forecast that game, with Ireland on 11 points to Scotland’s ten and Japan’s 14, is expected to go ahead as scheduled.
Gilpin defended the decision to bring the tournament to Japan in typhoon season, with Hagibis the 19th of the year.
“What we have seen over the last three weeks absolutely in every respect vindicates the right decision to be here in Japan,” said the Englishman.
“It’s been an incredible tournament on and off the field and we always knew there were going to be risks. It is rare for a typhoon of this magnitude to cause this impact this late on the typhoon season.”
All fans with tickets to cancelled matches will be entitled to a full refund.
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