HONG KONG — With a super typhoon bearing down on Japan, Rugby World Cup organizers on Thursday canceled two matches for the first time.
Saturday’s games between New Zealand and Italy in Toyota City and between England and France in Yokohama were canceled because of safety concerns, said Alan Gilpin, the tournament director, at a news media briefing in Tokyo.
“We’ve been intensively working through a range of contingency options in partnership with host cities, the venues and the teams to try and ensure that any impacted matches has a fair chance of being played,” Gilpin told reporters. “However, the risks are just too challenging to enable us to deliver a fair and consistent contingency approach for all teams and participants, and importantly, to provide confidence in the safety of spectators.”
He said the storm was expected to be the most severe typhoon of the 2019 season in Japan, and that public transportation shutdowns and disruptions were expected in Tokyo, Yokohama and Toyota City.
Matches Friday in Shizuoka between Australia and Georgia and Saturday in Fukuoka between Ireland and Samoa are expected to be played.
Gilpin said conditions will be evaluated Sunday morning, after the storm is expected to have passed through the greater Tokyo area, to determine whether games that evening will be played. The main game that could be affected on Sunday is the key Pool A match between Japan and Scotland, which could affect which of the teams progresses to the knockout phase of the tournament.
The New Zealand-Italy match theoretically could have affected the knockout phase, but Italy was a prohibitive underdog that has never beaten the All Blacks in 14 tries. Italy lost its pool match to South Africa by 46 points, and pundits had predicted an equally lopsided defeat against New Zealand.
Still, Italy’s Irish coach, Conor O’Shea, voiced his players’ disappointment with the cancellation.
“I’m finding it really difficult, and I saw the players’ reaction after training, and it was horrible because these guys have given their lives to Italian rugby and their World Cup has ended on the training pitch, when it should be on the playing field,” O’Shea said.
Both England and France had already clinched places in the quarterfinals, although their game might have affected who they would play in the quarterfinal.
If the Sunday match between Japan, the host nation, and Scotland cannot be played, it would go down as a scoreless draw, with each team earning 2 points in the pool standings. That would leave Japan at the top of the pool and would probably mean Scotland would go home, barring an upset of Ireland by Samoa.
If the game is played, and Scotland wins and can score four or more tries to earn a bonus point, that result would knock the Japanese out of the tournament, again barring an upset of Ireland.
That would give the Japanese the distinction of repeating its fate of the 2015 Rugby World Cup, when it became the first nation to win three pool matches and not reach the knockout phase.
Scotland is a slight favorite, but Japan has played inspired rugby for its home fans and is one of only five undefeated teams left in the tournament. Gregor Townsend, the Scottish coach, told reporters he was confident that the game would be played and that he would be very disappointed if it were to be canceled.
“It will make things very unusual for a World Cup in any sport to be decided by a game being called off on one day,” Townsend said. “Let’s say if you are looking out your hotel window at 5 o’clock on Sunday afternoon and it is sunny, it would be quite strange if a game couldn’t take place that day.”
Cancellation rules for the tournament were set well in advance, and Gilpin said they were the same as in previous tournaments, but never had to be used before. Asked if any teams, like Italy, might have legal recourse to lodge a complaint, he said: “All of the teams signed up to the participation agreement to the tournament. They’re well aware of the tournament rules.”
Gilpin said tournament organizers had not calculated the economic impact of canceling matches, and added that all fans with tickets would receive a full refund.