Is this tournament tainted?
WORLD CUP SPOTLIGHT: Never work with animals, small babies and 1400km-wide typhoons.
That old adage routinely does the rounds in live TV. Okay, artistic licence has been added for the last bit, but it’s a serious point.
When due diligence was being done on Japan as a venue for the world’s third-largest sporting event, if you’re to use the game’s parlance, would you go high-risk and elect to host a tournament in an area that is renowned for earthquakes and in the heart of typhoon season, or play percentage rugby?
With typhoons not exactly a passing fad in the Far East, you don’t have to be Tomasz Schafernaker to realise you’re taking a punt.
It’s this question I keep asking myself when conflicted over the fallout of Typhoon Hagibis, as I have been in the light of England vs France and New Zealand vs Italy being cancelled.
Firstly, you have to concede World Rugby has made a judicious decision in stopping these games.
Should any supporter, casual worker, squad member or support staff be injured by inclement weather conditions, the game’s governing body would have far bigger fires to douse but they could have avoided these uncomfortable questions had they chosen not to roll the dice.
Safety is paramount, and those affected by this palaver understand this, but it is only right to ask whether egregious mistakes have been made.
They widely lauded by the great and the good of the game and in the intervening years, PR-friendly missives about ‘growing the game’ peppered inboxes almost as often as messages about earthquakes covering up tattoos but it’s worth noting that financial factors were part of the decision making. World Rugby proudly announced the sponsor roster was overflowing as far as a year out. It wasn’t pure altruism at play.
Furthermore, it should be pointed out that Japan has been wonderful, hospitable hosts. This shouldn’t mothball thoughts of taking the rugby world to this part of the world in future but it’s clear that to host the tournament on identical dates would be foolhardy.
On the Test stage, as well, it doesn’t take Colleen Rooney to deduce that the relationship between World Rugby and the Six Nations committee was strained around the proposal and subsequent rejection for the World Nations League and the impending injection of finance from CVC, has further muddied the waters.
Compromises will have to be eked out.
As previously mentioned, the tournament was awarded to Japan a decade ago, as Italy and South Africa were overlooked in a formal process, so you have to wonder what the contingency plans were in place for rescheduling games in the event they came under threat as a result of a ‘force majeure’ because I haven’t seen them.
Whatever transpires from now on, this has tainted the tournament. Never once in its 32-year history fixture been cancelled and it has opened a Pandora’s Box of issues that may yet come back to bite the tournament’s organisers.
Italy, for one, will not have a chance to pit their wits against the reigning world champions, the All Blacks, depriving two of Italy’s greats, Sergio Parisse and Leonardo Ghiraldini, a chance to say addio to their loyal fans, and while the Azzurri were going home anyway the remaining sides will have mixed feelings about the cancellation.
England has barely had to clunk the gears in this tournament and the thought of facing the battle-hardened Wallabies in the quarter-finals is less than ideal. Correspondingly, the word from the French camp is that they’re less than enamoured not to have the chance to reprise their entente cordiale to better prepare them for facing a Welsh side, whom they have only beaten once since 2011. France and ‘bang in form’ isn’t exactly bedfellows at present.
For the Welsh and Australian camps, should they lose, you can expect griping from some voluble quarters about the extended rest periods afforded to their opponents. In knockout rugby, so there is little room for nuance. You win or you lose. In a tournament, you want to feel that it’s a level-playing field and this has opened up room for side’s to take umbridge.
If you bundle in issues with global broadcasters and sponsors, the forecast for World Rugby is stormy enough, but should the Japan v Scotland game be cancelled on Sunday, they will realise they are in the eye of the storm. If Gregor Townsend’s men are not afforded the opportunity to overcome the Brave Blossoms in Yokahama, rest assured that the feelings of the SRU and its fans will be made in no uncertain terms.
Shrugging shoulders and saying, ‘s**t happens’ isn’t going to cut it, especially after they bombed out of the 2015 World Cup after a refereeing error from Craig Joubert.
Finally, spare a thought for the travelling fans. Without them, the tournament lacks colour, passion and raw emotion.
For the few, the thousands of pounds shelled out for eye-watering packages will be small change. It will be a case of downing a few beers, taking in the underground shopping in the malls of Tokyo and finding other forms of entertainment but for the majority, who have saved for years for this once in a lifetime opportunity, the cancellation of games, at rugby’s global showpiece will be crushing and scars could take years to heal.
Up to now, Japan 2019 had been a roaring success but World Rugby knows matters are out of their hands. All they can do is hope and pray Hagibis decides to change course and blow itself out into the Pacific before more damage is inflicted. Simply, they need luck.
It shouldn’t have come to this.
By Owain Jones, RugbyPass
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