Jonathan Bradley: A weather-inflicted asterisk could hang over Asia's World Cup legacy
In a World Cup that is increasingly anything but, Ireland tried to remain business as usual in their Fukuoka hotel yesterday.
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Earlier in the week, it seemed as if they could be the team pondering whether their tournament was over without a tackle being made in anger but, thanks to the changing course of Typhoon Hagibis, instead it’s Scotland anxiously waiting to find out if their deciding fixture is to be cancelled and they’ve seen the back of this competition after only three games played. Sat at a top table trying to keep the conversation on their clash with Samoa, skipper Rory Best could have been forgiven for thinking ‘there but by the grace of God’.
Given the uncertainty surrounding the state of Pool A at present, talk of focusing on the task at hand was understandable for a side who have spent years preaching the importance of controlling the controllables, but outside of the bubble there was only one story in town.
In what was one of the most incredible 24 hours in the 32-year history of this tournament, chaos reigned from the moment it emerged on Wednesday night in Japan that it had not been possible to move Saturday’s two endangered contests to Oita and continued through impromptu press-conferences and seemingly conflicting statements from organisers and the understandably irate Scots.
By the time yesterday evening came and Ireland’s team announcement for Samoa had concluded, everyone had said their piece yet nobody felt any the wiser as to what was the likeliest outcome for the final game of the pool stages.
Declarations of war, acts of terrorism, injury... there’s a litany of reasons that we’ve witnessed significant sporting events cancelled over the years but, after what felt an unprecedented decision to cancel rather than postpone games with a significant bearing on the competition, the record books of this World Cup will now always contain a weather-inflicted asterisk.
And while there were reports that France’s approach to the clash with England would be that of a side keener to avoid the All Blacks in a potential semi-final than Wales in the quarters, and it would have been close to unimaginable for Italy to topple New Zealand, the further threat to Japan’s game against Scotland represents something of a doomsday scenario.
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Nobody can blame Best for his refusal to be drawn on just what it all means for the legacy of 2019 but, for the rest of us, we are in danger of having the enduring memory of Asia’s first Rugby World Cup being that of yesterday’s chaos.
Three people died when Typhoon Faxai hit these shores only a month ago so there is little reminder required that this is much bigger than rugby but, in solely sporting terms, the integrity of what has been a hugely well-received tournament so far is now in danger.
Both the sense of occasion and storied run of the host nation has to date by and large compensated for a humidity that has damaged the quality of some pool stage games, but to have what would always be viewed as a back-door quarter-finalist would be a step too far for many to take.
Assuming Ireland take themselves out of the muddled equation by beating Samoa on the thankfully unaffected island of Kyushu, it would be fair on neither Scotland to go out in such a manner, nor on Japan who would now have what looked set to be a piece of rugby history forever tarnished.
Imagine if Ireland’s first ever semi-final were to come in such a fashion.
Yet it would likely pale in significance to the emotional let-down of the Brave Blossoms seeing a maiden last eight spot remembered for reasons other than their early pool heroics.
Hindsight is undoubtedly 20/20, but was there no way to follow FIFA’s lead — a rare sentence if ever there was one — who brought forward the football World Cup by some two weeks in 2002 to avoid the start of typhoon season?
Failing that, even if safety must come first, it seems like a tournament ten years in the making should have had greater contingency in place that protected both fans and the integrity of the tournament. While we’re all guilty of not pressing further, the 0-0 draw never felt like a satisfactory outcome when first flagged and so it has now proved.
“We looked pretty exhaustively at all the options,” said Rugby World Cup tournament director Alan Gilpin in a statement that will have caused sinking hearts from Yokohama to Edinburgh and back again.
“It is important to note that where we are is in accordance with what we said we would do before the tournament.
“Doing that on this scale, with so many teams to move around, and to be able to deliver safely the exit of 12 teams after the pool stage, we couldn’t guarantee contingency plans consistently. If we can’t do it for all, we can’t do it for any.
“We have looked again at the potential to apply some consistency to our contingency plan across all the games and we treat all the matches fairly. Italy are in the same position as Scotland. It is a huge match and we would love to play that game. But we won’t treat that match any differently.”
On that basis, things like Scottish murmurs of playing behind closed doors in a different stadium or a 24-hour delay all feel a little like pressure and crossed fingers.
No World Cup has ever been remembered for its pool stages, especially so in rugby when so often they provide a lengthy pre-amble to the serious business of the knock-outs. Should Japan and Scotland have to be cancelled some six hours before it’s due to kick-off , 2019 is in danger of being the exception.
Should it come to pass, it seems unlikely those affected will be satisfied to simply blame it on the weatherman.
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