Sunday 20 October 2019

Paul Hayward: 'People want a whole World Cup, not one with bits missing and questions unresolved'


World Rugby Chief Operating Officer and Tournament Director Alan Gilpin. Photo: REUTERS/Matthew Childs
World Rugby Chief Operating Officer and Tournament Director Alan Gilpin. Photo: REUTERS/Matthew Childs

Paul Hayward

Visiting rugby fans feel they're in a movie, with warnings to "stay indoors" when "the biggest typhoon of the 2019 season" might hit. They know they have lost rugby matches and holiday money. But has the World Cup also lost its symmetry, its competitive integrity?

If this blows over quickly, the quarter-finals will come soon enough and the revelry will return. Yet this World Cup is now clouded by an imbalance the organisers claim was impossible to avoid.

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Some teams will play only three pool games and Japan could be waived into the last eight without having to grapple with Scotland, who need a victory to progress. The organisers tried - but maybe not hard enough.

Delivering all the fixtures is a responsibility all impresarios bear. Nobody is suggesting spectators should be exposed to 100mph winds on the way to stadiums. For World Rugby to make that the central issue was misleading. The crux was whether they should have been more flexible and inventive to obey the old showbiz mantra: the show must go on.

In his address yesterday, Alan Gilpin, the tournament director, said he and his colleagues had been "intensively working" on a solution, adding: "However, the risks are just too challenging to enable to us to deliver a fair and consistent contingency approach for all teams and participants."

This explanation sidesteps two possible solutions. If Japan-Scotland goes ahead on Sunday, some of the heat will be taken out of the debate raging here in Tokyo, but New Zealand-Italy and England-France have already been lost.

In all cases the organisers have rejected two opportunities: 1. To reschedule games for Monday or Tuesday next week and 2. To move them to cities unlikely to be affected by Typhoon Hagibis - though predicting its course is hard.

Two games have been lost and a third will be condemned or saved on Sunday morning. If Japan v Scotland is also cancelled the big weekend losers will be Italy and Scotland. The big winners will be New Zealand, France and England, who will all have to play one game fewer.

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Japan would be the biggest gainers of all. A cancellation would guarantee them passage to a quarter-final and also shave a match off their schedule.

Many justifications have been advanced. Many are logistical - the problem of shifting teams, fans and broadcasters around a country where infrastructure damage is predicted. Another is the difficulty in moving back into stadiums that have already been decommissioned as rugby venues.

Nobody could claim it would have been easy, but there are big holes in the argument. First, the authorities seem to be saying there is no wiggle room in the schedule on Monday and Tuesday, despite them saying months ago that flexibility was built in. A five-day turnaround is hardly ideal. But ask Scotland whether they would rather go home without playing again or have five days to prepare for the All Blacks.

The biggest contributing factor in the success of Rugby World Cups is the physical commitment of the players, who, in today's muscle-bound culture, take extraordinary risks to lay on the spectacle.

That investment should be honoured. World Rugby say Scotland could not be given a second chance that was denied to Italy; the answer to which is - rearrange New Zealand-Italy as well, once the winds have ceased.

People want a whole World Cup, not one with bits missing and questions unresolved.

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