The World Cup descended into chaos and confusion on Wednesday as attempts were abandoned to relocate pool-defining matches involving England and Scotland because of Typhoon Hagibis.
This meant that for what would be the first time in the 32-year history of the World Cup, organisers were contemplating cancelling key pool matches this weekend, including Scotland’s winner-takes-all match against Japan, and England’s confrontation with France which would decide who topped Pool C.
There was a real prospect of Scotland going home without completing their matches, despite there being a week between the pool matches and the quarter-finals, given that only by beating Japan can they progress.
Organisers were due to address the issue overnight, with sources within the England camp expecting their game against France in Yokohama on Saturday to fall victim to the typhoon even though there had been contingency plans to have it played elsewhere. Senior sources in both the England and France camps revealed that they were making plans to move the game 600 miles south to Oita on Kyushu island.
But the fact that the match would have been played behind closed doors so as to discourage fans from travelling did not meet with universal approval from all stakeholders, including broadcasters.
Once that initiative failed, there was no other get-out-of-jail card to play as the super typhoon will force Tokyo into lockdown. It is due to strike the Japanese capital with wind speeds of up to 160mph forecast. All public transport is on alert to be stopped.
The only very faint possibility remaining on Wednesday night was in a late swerve in the path of Hagibis, which could lead to a postponement of 24 hours for England, and likewise for Japan against Scotland the following day.
However, after a day of about-turns, it appeared that even though there was a slim window of weather opportunity that might allow the matches to be played, the most likely scenario was that anything up to four games might be cancelled so as to preserve competitive integrity across the groups.
If that were to come to pass, there would be uproar in Scotland, with the likelihood that Japan would qualify for the knockout stages for the first time in their history without having to kick a ball in anger on the final day as Ireland’s two points for a cancelled game against Samoa would put the hosts top.
Scotland would feel mightily aggrieved that they did not have the chance to rescue their campaign after an opening-weekend loss to Ireland by defeating the high-flying Brave Blossoms. Scotland would be incensed that their campaign had seemingly been brought to a premature conclusion.
The other game under severe threat involves New Zealand against Italy. It is a mess and World Rugby’s worst nightmare has come to pass. There was always risk involved in playing at this time of year in Japan when typhoons regularly sweep in from the Pacific Ocean. England had a day of disruption on arrival in the country on Sept 9 due to the impact that Typhoon Faxai had as it wreaked havoc when it passed through.
Organisers had their fingers crossed that their pool stages would escape unscathed as the complex matrix of fixtures meant that there was no slack in the schedule for postponements. However, this late blast of extreme weather has forced them to scramble to find a contingency that works for everyone.
That has not happened. The Oita option was a radical alternative and it entailed teams packing up in a thrice and travelling a huge distance only 48 hours before a match. As it was, they have been spared that arduous trip, although the French team were still intending to head to Tokyo from their base in the southern city of Kumamoto. England had been preparing for the worst case scenario.
“Whatever is thrown at us, we’ll deal with it,” said England defence coach John Mitchell. “We’ll look forward to dealing with it. That’s always the way the game has been. You can’t afford that external noise to get in the way of your preparation and focus. That’s clearly the task ahead for us as a coaching group and as a team. Look at when we arrived in Tokyo last month [when the typhoon had just hit]. We spent eight hours playing cricket on the tarmac outside the terminal waiting for a bus. The guys were wonderful on that day, the way they handled that situation. And then we still had an hour bus trip to get into Tokyo so that’s one example of how we’ve dealt with stuff.”
England, though, will be concerned that they might be short of consistent form as they head towards their likely quarter-final with the Wallabies.
Even though they have maximum points from three matches, they have yet to hit the heights. Typhoon Hagibis has added to that uncertainty.