Bending the rules for Scotland v Japan would be unfair when Italy were not granted the same opportunity

Opinion: A question of integrity at Rugby World Cup

World Cup matches cancelled for the first time in 32 years. Fans once-in-a-lifetime trips thrown into chaos. The integrity of the tournament called into question. No one wanted this.

Eddie Jones may joke that the “typhoon gods” have been shining down on England as the cancellation of their match against France means they have two weeks to prepare for their quarter-final, but he’ll be spinning a different line should his team get caught cold against most likely opponents Australia next weekend.

Related: Reaction to cancellation of Rugby World Cup matches

It’s an unprecedented situation – and the worst thing is it could get worse. This may be only the start of a worst-case scenario. What if the stadiums in Yokohama and/or Tokyo are damaged by Typhoon Hagibis to such an extent that Scotland v Japan can’t be played on Sunday and the knockout matches cannot be played there either? What then?

question of integrity at Rugby World Cup

Match off: A sign outside Yokohama Stadium (Getty Images)

Let’s leave those questions for now and look at the situation as it stands. For a start, this is about more than rugby. This is about the safety of the millions of people in Japan who will be affected when this ‘super typhoon’ hits land. Let’s keep a little perspective and remember that lives are at risk. Yes, the fact matches have been cancelled is hugely disappointing and frustrating (unless your Jones or Steve Hansen going by their statements) but these decisions have been made to keep people safe – teams, fans, staff, the public.

There have been plenty of people pointing accusing fingers at Japan 2019 organisers and World Rugby about a lack of contingency planning, so let’s take a look at those arguments…

Move the matches to different venues

World Rugby did look at moving affected games to parts of the country that would not be affected by Typhoon Hagibis – Oita and Sapporo were rumoured to be possible venues – but it was too difficult logistically.

Perhaps when it was just the two games in Yokohama that were to be affected – England v France and Scotland v Japan – it could have been arranged, although it still would have caused huge disruption because no other stadium can hold the 70,000 that Yokohama does so matches would most likely have been played behind closed doors.

question of integrity at Rugby World Cup

Missing out: England supporters were hoping to see the France match (Getty Images)

When New Zealand v Italy in Toyota also moved into Hagibis’s path, it multiplied the issues. That’s six teams to move around the country, including all the back-room staff and equipment, hotels and training venues to arrange, as well as ensuring the stadiums can host matches – bringing in staff, security, medical personnel, arranging transport etc.

All this would put additional pressure on resources in Japan that are going to be stretched already as they deal with the typhoon. It’s not quite as simple as moving a match to the second-team pitch when the first-team one is flooded.

Play matches under a roof

A few people questioned why New Zealand v Italy was called off when Toyota Stadium has a roof.

Firstly, the roof doesn’t actually work – maintenance costs reportedly proved too high so it’s been left open for several years.

Secondly, just because a stadium has a roof – say a game was played in Sapporo or Kobe – people can’t simply teleport inside. There could be dangers in teams, staff, supporters and so on getting to the matches.

Scotland v Japan must be played

A decision on whether Scotland v Japan goes ahead will be made, at the latest, six hours before kick-off on Sunday. Obviously everyone is hoping the match can go ahead, even playing it behind closed doors to ensure spectator safety would be preferable to cancelling it all together.

However, I don’t agree with suggestions that the fixture must go ahead, even if it means moving venues or delaying it by 24 hours. Yes, of the three matches most affected by the typhoon this is the most significant, but it cannot be given special dispensation when Italy were not granted the same.

question of integrity at Rugby World Cup

Waiting game: Scotland players won’t know if the match against Japan will be played until Sunday (Getty Images)

The Italians’ chances of qualifying for the last eight may have been slim – they have never beaten the All Blacks and have lost by an average of 51 points in their last three matches against them – but they had a chance nonetheless. Cancelling the match took that opportunity away from Italy and other teams cannot be treated differently simply because Scotland v Japan is likely to be more competitive.

Yes, places in the quarter-finals are at stake but to change the rules for one team and not another would bring the integrity of the entire competition into even greater question than cancelling matches. It’s the essence of fairness that every team is treated the same.

Let’s hope the damage caused by Hagibis is minimal and Scotland v Japan can go ahead but if not, there can’t be special measures for them when there were none for Italy.

Everyone knew the rules before the tournament – a pool game that can’t be played results in a 0-0 draw. If Scotland exit the tournament on those grounds they can rightly be fuming; it would be horribly unfortunate for events off the pitch to determine whether they progress or not, but it is a fate that has already befallen Italy.

The World Cup shouldn’t have been played during typhoon season

There’s actually an article in the current issue of Rugby World magazine questioning whether the World Cup window should be moved, although this was focused on the player release issues a lot of smaller nations have given that the tournament clashes with the European leagues.

We can’t control the weather – look at how rain affected the Cricket World Cup in the UK this year – but given the current situation, it does seem like staging the tournament during typhoon season was an unnecessary risk. Contingency plans could undoubtedly have been better, but a typhoon on such a huge scale would have been hard to predict and prepare for no matter how much time there was to prepare.

question of integrity at Rugby World Cup

Huge: The potential impact of Typhoon Hagibis compared to Faxai, which hit in September (Getty Images)

The scheduling all stems back to rugby’s perennial problem – the seasons in the different hemispheres run at different times. Until there is an aligned global season, problems like this will arise.

If the World Cup had been played in the summer, there would have been criticism of the heat – there are already concerns about the temperatures for next year’s Olympics in Tokyo. If it had been played later, there would have been a huge impact on the European leagues, where so many of the World Cup players ply their club trade and where so much of the game’s wealth is located.

The scheduling issues will never be resolved until various unions and organisations put aside self-interest for the wider good, show a little flexibility instead of being so unyielding.

People spoke of Japan 2019 being an historic World Cup and it is certainly proving to be that, albeit not in a way that anyone would have wanted. There really are no winners in situations such as these. Stay safe.

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