This is a timeline of Yokohama's wild ride before hosting one of the all-time great Rugby World Cup fixtures
Inside The Vital 24 Hours Before Japan v Scotland
On Sunday night in Yokohama, Japan made history, powering into the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals for the first time ever. They did so playing a uniquely Japanese style of rugby against Scotland. The match was an instant classic.
Just 24 hours before, rugby fans were left wondering if the game would even go ahead. Saturday had seen cancellations as Typhoon Hagibis came roaring into our lives. It wrought devastation in certain parts of the country, with flooding and landslides claiming lives and submerging cities. Much later we would see the death toll rise beyond 80 people, with many more injured.
Yet by 7.45pm on Sunday night, a packed-out International Stadium Yokohama witnessed the most anticipated game of this World Cup. How had organisers managed to stage the match so soon after such severe weather?
This is all about the vital hours leading up to Japan v Scotland…
Day of Hagibis
In the build-up to Typhoon Hagibis arriving on Saturday night and everyone being confined to their quarters, you might have seen the clip of the Brave Blossoms wading out to the pitch at Tokyo’s Chichibunomiya ground for their captain’s run through a flooded underpass.
Over at the match stadium in Yokohama, an operation is in place to take down all the temporary overlay. With screaming winds and massive rainfall, anything being left out is at risk of being ripped apart, which would actually jeopardise matches. So things like the advertising hoardings, big screens, spider cam and TV rigging have to come down and be taken out the stadium.
Organisers and officials have weather experts who update them regularly. From 72 to 48 hours before, a picture of Hagibis’s movements and force can be more accurately predicted, which helps with deciding which games can be on.
Ultimately, the weather takes some decisions out of organisers’ hands. For example, in the lead-up to the cancellation of Canada and Namibia’s match in Kamaishi – no stranger to harrowing events – a pitch inspection cannot even begin because flooding denies them access via the roads.
Related: Namibia v Canada cancelled
Saying goodnight to the teams
According to organisers, the last time they talk to the teams on the night of the typhoon is at around 9pm, to give them their final thoughts for the night. As you can see from the picture below, by 5pm the rain is already incredibly heavy, but the design of the stadium – with its engineered floodplain, for example – informs what is described as an “incredibly optimistic” final message to the teams.
As the wind and rain whip up, the teams go about their evenings, trying to take their minds off things.
The Scots are still recovering from their match against Russia on Wednesday so have to closely monitor how much time they spend on their feet. On the lower floors of their hotel, it is noticeable that the chandeliers shake in the team room – especially when the effects of the earthquake off the coast of Chiba is felt in their hotel, near Yokohama’s main train station. Generally relaxation is the watchword and many watch Ireland’s win over Samoa.
Meanwhile, the Japanese have a team meeting and then they look at a project they have worked on together. During camp, players are asked to film short clips of each other. Generally they are just shy of two minutes long each, then they are stitched together and the team watch the videos of their journey as a group.
The morning of…
Some workers spend the night in the stadium to ensure everything is looked after. Others stay in a hotel near to the stadium so they can get in as soon as possible. There are officials in the ground to begin initial inspections by 4am.
A mix of representatives from JR2019, regular venue managers and World Rugby’s own venue staff – there are specific teams at each site – are on the ground. Experts on safety, rigging and technology attend the inspection. World Rugby have their own match commissioners there, as they are responsible for the operation of the game – Brendan Morris is the man looking after that side.
There is an ‘operations centre’ for the whole event; an office that has constant information feeding into it over the 24 hours. This is where the weather experts brief the powers that be.
In this room is a blend of JR2019 bosses and senior Rugby World Cup figures – people like RWC head Alan Gilpin and general manager Rob Abernathy are the main leads in the room.
They are advised from a PR perspective by their head of comms Dom Rumbles and team services manager Enda Connolly – theirs are the phones that light up with team media managers seeking the current messaging and team managers wanting to know where things stand from the playing side.
There is a checklist in place when deciding if a game is on. They start from the bottom. Firstly: is the field playable? Can the teams get in and do the floodlights work? Will technology allow the TMO? They also have to look at their duty of care for the athletes.
A call must also be made between local authorities and organisers too. JR2019 have seconded government experts in their ranks who can advise on policing for example.
The next step is assessing how many staff and volunteers they can get in for security for the public and, say, catering. If they cannot run this at an acceptable level, the game is played behind closed doors.
They have to assess the transport network – not just for fans getting to the ground, but also for getting medical services in and out of the stadium. There will have to be emergency staff in there. Will they be able to conduct HIAs? Will there be pitch-side care and independent match doctors there?
As well as all this, workers begin bringing back the temporary overlay “from dawn”. The task of rigging a stadium can take two days; in Yokohama they do that job in six hours. Fans may not even notice that there are fewer merchandise areas and a reduced catering service than at previous games or that there are fewer advertising boards within the stadium.
Good news on a bad day
The decision is made that the game will go ahead. The teams are informed before 6.30am.
The standard practice here would be to let the teams know two hours before the public. Broadcasters and rights holders need to get set up too. However, while the organisers are fairly certain fans can come, they cannot relay the message that it is on with only a partial official picture. They want to get all their ducks in a row before making a clear announcement.
Once the head of broadcasting at the stadium confirms to their broadcasting partners it is on, at 9am, teams like ITV’s commentary group, can make for Yokohama.
Both teams prepare as if it was going ahead, regardless. Japan’s prep stayed the same – back-row Pieter Labuschagne claims people weren’t clock watching, waiting for a final decision. Some go out for a coffee later, discussing the game but trying not to overthink it.
The morning is a pretty slow start for the Scots too, because it’s a late kick-off. They breakfast, do a couple of walk throughs on an adjacent football pitch, there’s lunch, there’s a team meeting. Then it’s strapping up anyone that needs it and last bits of prep on the bus into the ground.
Having got clearance from all the local authorities, the official announcement is made around 10.30am that fans will be able to attend the match.
And then the game is played. And whoa, what a game.
After the match, coach Jamie Joseph and captain Michael Leitch dedicate their performance to the victims of Hagibis.
Related: Japan 28-21 Scotland
“I think it is important to acknowledge what went on last night with regards to the typhoon,” Joseph said. “We woke up this morning and nine people had been killed and 12 missing and are still missing (these numbers have changed and are still changing).
“We talked about that as a team. Sometimes those sorts of things can be overwhelming, but I think it came out in the mix today. While we are celebrating, a lot of people are suffering.”
His captain added: “Before the match started at the team hotel, the players already knew how this game was more than just us, that a lot of people suffered in the typhoon for this game to happen. There were guys up late last night with sponges.
“We are grateful for the opportunity to inspire Japan and we showed that for 80 minutes tonight.”
As 24 hours go, you don’t really get more emotions. Those involved won’t forget any of it in a hurry.
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