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Losers all-round in World Cup cancellations - but biggest victims still to be decided

It’s the outcome that no one was hoping for, but that many expected might occur: two Rugby World Cup matches have been called off due to the impending arrival of Typhoon Hagibis, and there’s still a chance for at least one more cancellation.

Earlier today, World Rugby announced that the fixtures between New Zealand and Italy in Toyota, and England and France in Yokohama were to be designated nil-all draws.

A decision has yet to be made on Sunday’s game between Japan and Scotland – a match which could have huge repercussions on the final standings at the end of the group stages of the 2019 tournament.

Big ticks for safety-first approach

World Rugby have rightly taken a safety-first approach to the coming storm.

The ‘super typhoon’ is telegraphed to do an extensive amount of damage, particularly in the Tokyo region, which has caused World Rugby to wisely reconsider hosting the two major games in Yokohama.

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Fans will be frustrated that they won’t be able to attend at least one highly anticipated match, between England and France. Although Japan’s game against Scotland is still on schedule for Sunday, World Rugby could make a later announcement to also cancel that fixture.

Fan frustration is the least important consideration, however, when it comes to potentially life-threatening storms and World Rugby should be applauded for making the smart choice.

Every avenue explored?

In the days leading up to the announcement, rumours were rife regarding what would be the outcomes of matches if they couldn’t be played on the scheduled time and date.

It was always going to be immensely difficult moving the two matches played at Yokohama Stadium (between England and France, and Japan and Scotland) due to the sheer size of the venue.

70,000 fans have booked tickets to each Yokohama game and there’s simply no way to accommodate all those fans at any of the other obvious venues around the country.

That rules out any chances of fans getting access to a replacement game, as there would simply be no way to fairly allocate tickets.

The common rumour seemed to be that the two Yokohama games would instead be played in a roofed stadium, away from the eyes of the public. This solution would ensure that no games were outright cancelled and the integrity of the tournament would be maintained.

It was one that evidently did not satisfy World Rugby.

“The decision to cancel matches has not been taken lightly and has been made in the best interests of public, team, tournament personnel and volunteer safety, based on expert advice and detailed weather information,” said tournament director Alan Gilpin.

“While we have extensively explored all options, public and team safety was our utmost priority as well as ensuring a consistent, fair and equitable outcome for all teams.”

Japan no stranger to typhoons

Questions can rightly be asked as to why greater contingency options didn’t exist in the first place.

World Rugby haven’t disclosed why games can’t be played elsewhere (nor do they have to), simply suggesting that it would be too much of a logistical nightmare.

Surely, given Japan’s ten years of preparations for this event, the logistics could have been determined in advance of matches?

Japan, of course, are no strangers to typhoons.

The country is regularly buffeted by heavy winds and intense rainfall over the stormy season – which conveniently takes place over the period of the Rugby World Cup.

There should have been every expectation by the tournament organisers that a major typhoon could disrupt primary World Cup plans, so contingencies should have been in place from right from the get-go.

Top teams undercooked heading into quarterfinals

England, France and New Zealand, the three sides involved in cancelled games who will partake in the finals, will head into the sudden death stages of the competition feeling somewhat undercooked.

France and New Zealand both kicked off the tournament with tough games, against Argentina and South Africa respectively, but have not come up against a tier 1 side since.

France were at least challenged by a galvanised Tongan team on Sunday, but New Zealand have cruised through their latest two games, winning 63-0 against Canada ten 71-9 against Namibia.

The All Blacks also haven’t fielded their top team since that initial game against the Springboks and rested and rotated their players in their most recent games, which could see them entering the playoffs (against one on Japan, Ireland or Scotland) lacking cohesion.

Brodie Retallick, who’s only just returned from a shoulder injury, has accrued just 30 minutes of game time.

You would have to think that NZ head coach Steve Hansen was quite looking forward to fielding his top side against Italy, so as to at least give his team a good hit-out heading into the quarters.

Instead, New Zealand will enter sudden death rugby having not played a game in two weeks, and having not played a competitive game in a month.

Last time New Zealand had such an easy pool was at the 2007 World Cup, where they were knocked out in the quarterfinals.

It’s a similar scenario for England, who were counting on getting their first proper challenge of the tournament from the feisty French.

England’s biggest game to date was against Argentina, who played with 14 men for the majority of the match. They’ve conceded just 20 points in the tournament and notched up 35 or more in all their matches.

That’s hardly what you’d call ideal preparation for going up against the Wallabies, who had two tough pool games against Fiji and Wales.

Unprecedented rests for tournament favourites

The other side of the coin, of course, is that some teams will enter the quarterfinals with two week rests for the first time in the competition’s history.

“We’re excited at the prospect of having a great preparation for the final now,” said England coach Eddie Jones after learning that his side’s game against France was to be called off.

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Wales, who France will face in their quarterfinal, will enter sudden death a week and a half after being battered, bruised and almost bested by Fiji – they’ve also got one more fixture to play, against Uruguay. Flyhalf Dan Biggar may not be available for the quarterfinal after copping a heavy blow from his own teammate in the game with Fiji – what would Warren Gatland have given to be able to skip that fixture?

It’ll be a similar story for Ireland, who will face either South Africa or New Zealand barely a week after having to deal to the sizeable Samoan team.

England, France and New Zealand will have an exceptional amount of time to rest up and prepare for the impending sudden death games – but will the gross amount of time off be a help or a hinderance?

Scotland on path to redemption or ejection?

A decision is yet to be made on Sunday’s crucial fixture between Scotland and Japan.

The final scheduled match of the group stages of the World Cup would decide who of the two competing teams will progress through to the quarterfinals.

Two competition points for Japan would lock up top spot in the pool, even if Ireland get a bonus point win over Samoa on Friday. Scotland, on the other hand, would need to earn at least four more competition points from the game than Scotland. That effectively means they need either a bonus point win, or a regular win but by more than 7 points.

If the match is cancelled, then Japan will progress from Pool A as the top-seeded team, booking them a game against South Africa.

Scotland, have come out of the gates slowly at this World Cup but have found some form in recent weeks, would be favourites to win Sunday’s match, despite Japan’s rich run of form, and will be profoundly frustrated if their match is called off.

Already pundits are frustrated at the fact that matches have been cancelled for the first time in World Cup history, but the greatest victims of the cancellations are still yet to be decided. Will it be the teams that will miss out on significant challenges before entering sudden death, the sides that have to go up against well-rested opposition come the quarterfinals, or the nation that started slowly but was looking to finish the group stages with a flourish?

Ardie Savea is still adjusting to the goggle life:

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Losers all-round in World Cup cancellations - but biggest victims still to be decided