Typhoon-hit RWC highlights risks for Tokyo Olympics

Alan Gilpin
Alan Gilpin

Tokyo - The unprecedented decision to cancel two Rugby World Cup matches in Japan has underscored the risks of holding large sporting events in a country prone to typhoons and earthquakes - and which hosts the Olympics in nine months.

Japan is one of the most natural disaster-prone countries on Earth, getting smashed by around 20 typhoons and thousands of earthquakes of varying size per year - not to mention its volcanoes.

Add in the baking summer heat likely to affect Tokyo next July and August, and there could be major headaches for organisers as hundreds of thousands of people move around scores of Olympic events.

Critics were quick to pounce on World Rugby's decision to axe England v France and Italy v New Zealand, the first games to be cancelled in the tournament's 32-year history.

Francois Pienaar, the South Africa captain who famously received the Webb Ellis Cup from Nelson Mandela in a Springbok jersey, said the weather should not be allowed to shatter players' dreams.

"Everybody has worked so hard. Why, if you work that hard and prepare yourself, let weather influence the outcome of the match? It shouldn't," he said.

Before the tournament, organisers had trumpeted "robust" contingency plans to deal with anything ranging from a destructive earthquake taking out a stadium to typhoons.

But Super Typhoon Hagibis, with a diameter of nearly 1 400 kilometres, hitting large areas of the country on the final weekend of pool matches - with seven fixtures due to be played - proved to be a perfect storm.

"We have looked pretty exhaustively over the last few days at all the options," said tournament organiser Alan Gilpin, after discarding the idea of moving games to other parts of the country.

"What became clear is that doing that on the scale of this final weekend... we couldn't guarantee consistent contingency plans across all those games safely for all the teams and fans involved."

A high-tech and rich country, Japan has developed highly efficient systems to deal with typhoons and earthquakes and usually sustains much less damage than other countries in comparable situations.

But former England flyhalf Stuart Barnes attacked the decision to hold the global showcase in Japan. "Any sensible plan has to account for worst-case scenarios. If a deadly typhoon was considered too difficult to handle, the sport should have looked elsewhere for a home," said Barnes in his Times column.

Gilpin said World Rugby had "no regrets at all" about handing the Rugby World Cup to Japan -- the tournament's first Asian host - which until now has won broad praise for its organisation and the enthusiasm of the fans.

"What you've all seen over the last three weeks absolutely in every respect vindicates the decision to be hosting a World Cup here in Japan - it's been an incredible tournament on and off the field," said Gilpin.

While clearly secondary to the typhoon's potential for destruction in Japan, there are consequences for players who have trained for years for to play at the World Cup.

Italy saw their very slim hopes of qualifying disappear with the cancellation of their game against New Zealand, while Scotland are clamouring for their must-win game against Japan to go ahead on Sunday. If it is cancelled, the Scots go home.

New Zealand Herald columnist Dylan Cleaver said: "The 2019 Rugby World Cup is now officially unfair."

The World Cup is seen as a curtain-raiser for the Olympics where the main concern is over soaring temperatures that have already forced changes, with organisers bringing forward the start time for the marathon.

Others tried to put the game cancellations into perspective.

"All the people who are crying at the matches being cancelled. We're talking about average winds of 250 km/h and torrential rain," tweeted Akimoto Hinato, an expert on rugby in Japan.

"There will be dozens of deaths but you're talking about a fixture being scrapped. You're crazy."

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