EDITORIAL: Cool heads needed against Japan
Host team’s inspirational performance in the Rugby World Cup can serve to unite a wounded nation
Host Japan’s spectacular win over Scotland in the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Yokohama on Sunday reignited a tournament that was in danger of turning into a damp squib — in more ways than one.
The game came close to not being played at all due to Typhoon Hagibis, which lashed Japan on Saturday and resulted in three Rugby World Cup games being cancelled, including one scheduled for Sunday. Fortunately for the organisers, none of the three was as high stakes as the Japan-Scotland fixture, which had the potential to produce the only major shake-up that would be carried through to the knockout stages.
Japan’s thrilling 28-21 victory over a shell-shocked Scotland has resulted in the host nation not only progressing to the quarterfinals but going through as leader of its pool, setting up a clash with the Springboks on Sunday. As every rugby fan knows, the Japanese team have defied the odds once before by beating the Boks.
Japan triumphing over Ireland and Scotland in the pool stages to qualify for the quarterfinals of World Cup 2019 is a dream outcome for World Rugby, which has put considerable effort into promoting the game among the minnows of the sport, the ranks of which included Japan until very recently. The host nation’s progress to the knockout stages will do wonders for the tournament and Japanese rugby in the coming years.
But things could have turned out very differently, which should give World Rugby pause for thought. With the exception of Japan’s dramatic shake-up of pool A, the rest of the pools have produced largely predictable results, with the two top-seeded teams going through and some mismatches along the way that resulted in cricket-like scores. Had Scotland beaten Japan comprehensively and bumped them back into third place in the pool — as the bookies and tournament seeding predicted would be the case before the tournament — the knockout stages of Rugby World Cup 2019 might have been a far less tantalising prospect.
World Rugby cannot be blamed for the weather and the body was right to prioritise player and spectator safety by not sticking to its schedule come hell or high water. Typhoon Hagibis was flagged as the most powerful storm to hit the islands in 60 years and lived up to its billing, leaving as many as 36 people dead and causing serious damage to housing and infrastructure in central and northern Japan.
Record rainfall fell in many areas, causing more than 20 rivers to burst their banks. In Kanagawa prefecture southwest of Tokyo more than a metre of rain fell in less than 48 hours. Thousands of people have been left homeless, even if temporarily, and thousands more will be without electricity for several days or weeks.
This should serve to put sport in general, and the Rugby World Cup in Japan in particular, into perspective. As much as fans sometimes behave as if their team’s performance is a matter of life or death, the actual deaths of scores of people as a result of Hagibis’s extreme weather matter infinitely more in the greater scheme of things. Japan hosting the Rugby World Cup, and especially the Japanese team’s inspirational performance so far, can serve to unite a wounded nation in the wake of the storm and provide a welcome distraction from the death and destruction, but it can do no more than that.
As for the Springboks, one thing is certain — this team will not be as complacent as the one that faced Japan in the 2015 Rugby World Cup and went down 32-34 in what is still widely considered the biggest upset in rugby union history. But coach Rassie Erasmus and captain Siya Kolisi will need to adapt their strategy to counter Japan’s pace and precision — and keep cool heads in the face of what is bound to be a passionate confrontation — if they are to rain on the host nation’s parade and advance to the semifinals.