Scotland in World Cup limbo ahead of must-win game that may not happen

Japan game hinges on safety inspection that could send Gregor Townsend’s side home and raise major questions over planning

Yutaka Nagare trains ahead of the scheduled match against Scotland as Typhoon Hagibis approaches Saturday.
Yutaka Nagare trains ahead of the scheduled match against Scotland as Typhoon Hagibis approaches Saturday. Photograph: Yuki Sato/AP

Scotland were bunkered in their Yokohama hotel on Saturday, warned not to go outside and face the torrential rain that precipitated the arrival of Super Typhoon Hagibis, improvising ways of preparing for a match against Japan that may not be played.

Tokyo came to a standstill, justifying the decision taken by World Rugby on Thursday to cancel Saturday’s match in Yokohama, about 22 miles south of the capital, between England and France, with the city’s two airports closed and train services suspended. A number of residents, including those in Kawasaki, midway between Tokyo and Yokohama, were advised to evacuate their homes and go to emergency centres because of flood warnings.

World Rugby will make a decision morning local time over whether the game between Japan – who left their five-star hotel in Tokyo on Saturday morning for new digs in Yokohama – and Scotland goes ahead. That will not just depend on how the 1,400km-wide typhoon strikes Yokohama and its stadium and if transport links will be operational, but any threat to life and property as the worst storm here for 61 years made landfall.

That is why World Rugby was aggrieved at the decision of Scottish Rugby’s chief executive, Mark Dodson, to go public on Friday with his demand that should the match be called off, it be rescheduled for Monday, despite his union being signatories to the participation agreement that there would be no new date for any of the pool matches.

Squabbling over whether a game should be played when there were fears of significant casualties was considered grossly insensitive.

The super typhoon left both sets of players in limbo, although Japan had the consolation of knowing that a cancellation would put them into the quarter-finals for the first time having won their opening three matches, confirmed by Ireland’s defeat of Samoa.

Brave Blossoms tackle typhoon Hagibis flood waters for training – video

“It could be the biggest match of our careers and we just want to get stuck into it,” said the Scotland full-back Stuart Hogg. “It is one we believe we can win and I just hope we have the chance.”

World Rugby has been criticised by supporters who struggle to understand why two fixtures – New Zealand’s match against Italy in Toyota also fell victim to the weather and saw the Italians end their tournament nursing a sense of grievance – were called off and registered as 0-0 draws without contingency plans being activated. Under the rules, the games would be switched to an alternative venue on the same day but it was felt that the force of the typhoon was so great that it would not have been possible to safely relocate all the teams and supporters.

Although the World Cup has been scheduled during Japan’s typhoon season, it was supposed to be at the tail end of it – and meteorologists blame the climate crisis for the severity of Hagibis, which picked up energy from the warm waters of the Pacific. Changing weather patterns throughout the world are posing a challenge to various major sporting events and the duration of the World Cup will be a topic when World Rugby holds its tournament debrief.

It currently lasts six weeks. Forty pool matches are shoehorned into 30 days, giving little wriggle room, which is why the rule that any match that cannot be played on its scheduled day will be recorded as a 0-0 draw. One option is to start a World Cup a week earlier, something that would agitate clubs in England and France as their players would already be in camp.

It would allow a gap between the end of the pool stage and the quarter-finals and provide free days for matches that were called off. The downside is that would increase costs and leave broadcasters with a gap, although they had one anyway this weekend.

Another option is to lump pool matches closer together rather than spread them throughout a week to provide scope for rescheduling, but whatever may be decided in future will be of no consolation to Scotland, who need to play to have a chance of remaining in the tournament.

“As players, we can only control what we can control,” said Greig Laidlaw, restored as Scotland’s captain with Stuart McInally dropping to the bench. “We have to prepare like it is going to happen even if it means finding ways of training indoors because we have to be ready. No one can control the weather, but from the players’ point of view having a back-up plan needs to be looked at.”