YOKOHAMA, Japan — The Rugby World Cup match between Japan and Scotland in Yokohama on Sunday kicked off like any other: a crescendo of noise, building up to the swing of the boot and the teams charging at each other. It was a moment of rugby normality against a backdrop of a most turbulent week.
That this match ever even happened is thanks to thousands of local workers and the organising committee who somehow managed to set up the stadium for the 65,000 supporters and the players, and who took care of various logistical necessities after Japan suffered one of its worst storms in living memory just a few hours earlier. At the time of writing, 19 people are known to have died.
Saturday in the Rugby World Cup saw Ireland hammer Samoa, but while that fixture was being played in Fukuoka, Tokyo was being battered by Typhoon Hagibis. News of the typhoon’s impact started early on Saturday morning, with reports of flooding and evacuation. By early morning, the first fatality had been confirmed in Chiba, east of Tokyo. The national news channel had footage of rivers breaking their banks, houses being destroyed and emergency services guiding residents through shoulder-high water to safety.
In Tokyo, the wind swirled and rain poured from Friday evening, but it was only on Saturday that we felt the brunt of Hagibis.
Alarming ’emergency alerts’ pinged on the mobile phones of various journalists as we sat around in the hotel reception, each device ringing in jarring discordance. The local shops had been cleaned out as folk stockpiled supplies. The hotel warned us that in the case of emergency we were to stay in our rooms. As Ireland kicked off against Samoa, the hotel swayed — as it’s built to do — giving you the feeling you were on board a boat in slightly choppy seas. It was a bizarre sensation, but nothing compared to the devastation for thousands in nearby areas who would lose their homes and livelihoods.
AN HOUR’S flight to the south-west, Formula One’s annual Grand Prix at Suzuka had already temporarily shut up shop. It was clear how serious the threat from Typhoon Hagibis could be when circuit workers started drilling metal stakes into the paddock’s asphalt to anchor the teams’ hospitality units in place on Friday night. It still wasn’t certain how strong the winds would be, but as F1 started making preparations after Friday’s practice sessions had been completed, forecasts suggested nearby Nagoya was still at risk from a direct hit. As it transpired, Hagibis veered east of the Suzuka area as it approached the mainland on Saturday afternoon, resulting in heavy rain and strong winds at the circuit, but nothing on the scale of the devastation elsewhere.
In a joint decision, F1, the FIA, Japanese Automobile Federation and Suzuka’s owners, MobilityLand, decided on Friday morning to cancel Saturday’s final practice and qualifying sessions. There was little doubt it was the right decision, given the severity of the impending weather, and as it happened there was no way the sessions could have taken place had F1 attempted to brave the storm. The main priority was the safety of spectators, team members and everyone involved, with concerns then focused on protecting the team’s possessions, F1’s broadcasting equipment and the circuit itself.
Inside the garages, teams raised the cars on stilts and used sandbags outside doors to protect their valuable equipment from flooding. F1’s entire broadcast centre, which travels race-to-race in a temporary building and takes a day to assemble, was dismantled and rebuilt again in four garages at the end of the paddock in the space of one evening. The circuit itself was closed to all but essential staff throughout Saturday and the paddock gates remained closed until 5am on Sunday morning.
Once the Suzuka circuit was under lockdown, teams, journalists and officials went straight to the local supermarkets to buy provisions for the next 24 hours. Instant noodles were a staple part of the diet, but ran the risk of being inedible if a power cut made the in-room kettles useless. Sandwiches were also popular, but to the extent that the only filling left in one 7-Eleven was chocolate and whipped cream. Hours of movies were downloaded onto computers and iPads, while Mercedes distributed their own branded versions of the Monopoly board game to keep rival teams Racing Point and Williams entertained in case the power went down.
A group of drivers, including Max Verstappen, Carlos Sainz, Sergio Perez and Lando Norris, gathered in the Suzuka Circuit hotel to play a FIFA tournament on Verstappen’s portable PlayStation. Dubbed in one Instagram post as the “most competitive Saturday we’ve had in years” — a sly dig at F1’s one-sided qualifying sessions under the current regulations — 22-year-old Verstappen emerged as the eventual winner.
Showing the age divide in F1’s grid, 33-year-old Romain Grosjean kept his Twitter followers updated on the build of a 1/20 scale model F1 car. The Frenchman chose the quirky six-wheel Tyrrell from 1977, which finished second at that year’s Japanese Grand Prix in the hands of Patrick Depailler. Armed with a tube of superglue and a pair of pliers, he finished the job just before 7:00 p.m. on Saturday evening.
Qualifying, which was originally scheduled for Saturday afternoon, was shifted to Sunday morning, giving fans a bumper day of on-track action, starting at 10:00 a.m. and finishing with the race’s chequered flag shortly after 3:30 p.m., with Lewis Hamilton victorious. There was no major damage to the circuit or team equipment during Saturday’s storm and the entire paddock considered itself very lucky to only see the worst of Hagibis on TV sets. The only questions that remained were over the logic of holding the annual Japanese Grand Prix bang in the middle of the country’s typhoon season, when in theory it could easily find a different slot on F1’s nine-month calendar.
THE TURMOIL for World Rugby, organisers of the Rugby World Cup, had been far deeper and will likely keep rumbling. The murmurings of potential disruption on a rugby and, more importantly, national scale began at the start of the week as Typhoon Hagibis became part of the vernacular. World Rugby officials were informed of this storm brewing in the Pacific. Press conferences included the odd question geared towards the potential impact of the typhoon. The players had already experienced Typhoon Faxai at the start of the tournament.
But by Tuesday authorities had officially upgraded the storm to a typhoon and World Rugby looked into contingency plans and the possible ramifications for the final round of pool matches. The 20 competing nations had all signed an agreement that if a match could not be played, it would be cancelled. But the authorities were prepared to break this agreement, if it meant they could get all the games on — looking into logistics like moving matches and booking transport and hotels.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Japanese Meteorological Agency staged a press conference, where it warned the nation over the impact of Typhoon Hagibis: it was going to break records with its ferocity and lives were at risk. England’s match against France was due to be played on Saturday evening in Yokohama, when the eye of the storm was predicted to be overhead. One plan World Rugby weighed up was moving the match to Oita, with Fiji even moved out of their hotel early in preparation for one of the two teams. But having weighed this up, World Rugby did not decide to pursue this route for two reasons: one, the logistical side of putting the teams up and secondly, it wanted to maintain a blanket rule across all matches — either the games would go ahead or they would be cancelled. World Rugby called a press conference for Thursday, where it would announce plans for the weekend’s matches.
Late on Wednesday evening, the England camp believed the game would be cancelled and started looking into heading south ahead of their quarterfinal in Oita. By midday local time on Thursday, World Rugby announced two matches would be cancelled — England’s match against France in Yokohama and Italy’s game against New Zealand in Toyota. Sunday’s four games were, at that stage, still going ahead, but would face late stadium and pitch inspections on the day.
By the time World Rugby delivered that news, the England support staff were already loading up trucks to take their equipment south to Miyazaki. Eddie Jones, the England coach, addressed the media and spoke of how pleased he was at having additional time to prepare his team for the quarterfinal.
The mood was less upbeat in the Italy camp. They’d still had a mathematical chance of qualifying, needing a win against New Zealand, and if that failed, then the match would serve as a farewell to three of their long-serving forwards: Sergio Parisse, Leonardo Ghiraldini and Alessandro Zanni. Italy found out the match was off having just finished training, and some players broke down. Parisse and coach Conor O’Shea delivered an emotional press conference, where Parisse argued the organisers would have somehow found a way to get the game going ahead had the All Blacks been the side needing a win.
Having seen two matches cancelled, Scotland started sabre-rattling and said they would look into legal action against World Rugby if their must-win game against Japan was called off. They were keen to pursue three potential options: postponing the game to later in the day, playing it the following day or moving the match. World Rugby had options available in the immediate area to play the match at an alternative venue on Sunday if needed.
Japan were left unimpressed by the noises coming from Scotland’s camp, feeling it had undermined their success at the World Cup, which included beating Ireland, one of the favourites to win the tournament. Privately, Japan felt the talk of lawsuits suggested they would be okay with the match being cancelled as it would guarantee their passage to the quarterfinals. Head coach Jamie Joseph delivered a resolute statement at the start of his Friday press conference, saying his team wanted to play, win and enter the last eight on merit rather than by a technicality.
It was an altogether different storm from that which hit Japan on Saturday.
BY SUNDAY morning, it was eerily calm. A bright blue sky greeted you along with a breeze. The centre of Tokyo, where we were located, looked relatively unaffected by the storm, but the news of devastation elsewhere was at the forefront of everyone’s minds. At about 6:30 a.m. local time, World Rugby announced Namibia-Canada would have to be cancelled as large parts of host city Kamaishi were under water — the Canadian team would later help the locals with relief efforts. Confirmation then came through that Wales-Uruguay and USA-Tonga were both on and then at about 10:30 a.m., World Rugby announced Japan-Scotland would go ahead.
At that point, the stadium was without its necessary rigging and fences and all temporary infrastructure had been taken down in preparation for the storm. The changing rooms had a centimetre of water across their floor after 900cm (four months’ worth) of rain fell the previous day. Workers had slept the night in the stadium, so they could begin work at the first opportunity on Sunday. They even watered the pitch on Sunday morning to clear it of any debris. It was a truly remarkable effort to get this game the go-ahead.
As the sun dipped down and was replaced by a calm night sky, the players walked out in Yokohama to be greeted by the sound of fervent home support, all dressed in red and white. They sang the anthems and then came a minute’s silence as the crowd stood to remember the 19 people who had lost their lives the previous day.
Japan would go on to defeat Scotland and progress to the Rugby World Cup quarterfinals for the first time in their history. Their rugby was joyous and irrepressible. It was, in the comparatively trivial world of sport, as fitting a tribute as could be.