When Scottish Rugby chief executive Mark Dodson and chief operating officer Dominic McKay quaffed a glass or three of business class bubbly en route to the World Cup in Tokyo this week, they already knew that they were flying into a storm. They never anticipated quite how turbulent.

As long ago as October 2, long before the pair left Murrayfield in time to be in Shizuoka for Wednesday's 61-0 victory over Russia, a "tropical disturbance" north of the Marshall Islands had already blipped on to meteorologists' radar screens. The next day, Japan's Joint Typhoon Warning Centre issued a formal alert, and by last Saturday, as the Brave Blossoms beat Samoa and claimed the injury-time bonus point that moved Scotland one step nearer the tournament trapdoor, the storm had morphed into a severe tropical storm. And it had a name: Hagibis.

Even the disarmingly ironic sobriquet of Typhoon Haggis, which it quickly gained, could not mask its exceptionally brutal nature. With winds gusting up to 195mph (hagibis means "speed" in Filipino) and an eye 34 miles wide when it made landfall on the Izu peninsula on the outskirts of greater Tokyo yesterday evening, it was the most savage typhoon to hit the Japanese mainland for 61 years.

Premium gold

For the Scots, the warning signs were plain to see as soon as Japanese Railways announced plans to suspend services over the weekend, aiming to restart them only at midday today – just hours before Scotland and Japan were scheduled to play in Yokohama.

Advertisement

The arrival of Scottish Rugby's leading officials could hardly have been worse timed. The duo barely had time to shake off their jet-lag before the match against Russia kicked off at 6.15pm Japanese time on Wednesday.

Scotland team huddle. Photo / Photosport
Scotland team huddle. Photo / Photosport

By then events were assuming a chaotic momentum of their own amid a vortex of rumours, claims and counter-claims.

According to sources in the Scotland camp, New Zealand were the de facto decision-makers on a black day for the sport. The "robust contingencies" which three months earlier World Rugby had assured were in place for a tournament held in typhoon season (Japan averages 20-25 typhoons each year) were understood to have included moving games to unaffected areas or postponing games.

READ MORE:
2019 Rugby World Cup: Ireland move into quarter-finals by crushing Samoa
Rugby World Cup 2019: Scotland Rugby Union fires shots at All Blacks
2019 Rugby World Cup: Japan complete captain's run as Typhoon Hagibis strikes
2019 Rugby World Cup: Steve Hansen reveals one of his biggest regrets as an All Blacks selector

As the severity of Hagibi became clear World Rugby floated the idea of moving New Zealand against Italy to Oita on Japan's southernmost island.

Despite the theoretical possibility that the Azzurri could qualify for the quarter-finals with a bonus-point win over the world champions, the Kiwis were said to be unenthusiastic about changes to the schedule. They were reluctant to countenance a reduced turnaround before their quarter-final, nor hear of a move to Oita. They had the tournament rules on their side – although this was later disputed by Scotland's legal advice.

The already-qualified England and France had a phlegmatic approach to cancellation, and Italy had little clout in rugby's corridors of power. World Rugby denies Scottish claims that New Zealand, the world champions, exercised "undue influence".

So even as Scotland romped past Russia, the fateful decision to cancel New Zealand versus Italy and England versus France was being taken.

Advertisement
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen during a press conference at the Hilton Tokyo Bay after confirming their next match against Italy is to be called off. Photo / Photosport
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen during a press conference at the Hilton Tokyo Bay after confirming their next match against Italy is to be called off. Photo / Photosport

The first person to state as fact that the games were off was PA's Duncan Bech. He tweeted from Japan at 11.30pm on Wednesday in the UK – around the time the last newspaper editions were off to the printers – that: "England's World Cup game against France has been cancelled. Official confirmation expected at 4am BST".

Bech's tweet was sent at 7.30am on Thursday in Japan, but despite World Rugby insisting "the decision to cancel some matches ... comes with the support of all stakeholders, including teams", not everyone was on board.

The Italian management were said to be "utterly heartbroken", while the sight of Leonardo Ghiraldini breaking down in tears on the training ground when told of the decision is one of the most heart-rending images of this or any other World Cup. The 34-year-old hooker had spent five months in intensive rehab after a knee injury so that he could end his 14-year Test career by winning his 105th cap with a 20-minute cameo at the end of Italy's match against the All Blacks.

Nor did Italian captain Sergio Parisse, playing his last Test after 18 years and 142 caps, hide his feelings. "If New Zealand needed four or five points against us it would not have been cancelled," he said. "It is ridiculous there was no plan B, because it isn't news that typhoons hit Japan." New Zealand coach Steve Hansen sympathised, but not to the point of agreeing to postpone their match against Italy. "If we'd had a choice, we would have rather played Friday [instead of Saturday] but it wasn't our choice, it was out of our control. We have to back World Rugby's decision and if other teams miss out, it's unfortunate. But if you want to be really ruthless, then it's all about making sure you win the games on the way through because everyone knew this could be a possibility."

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen. Photo / Photosport
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen. Photo / Photosport

As the blame game gathered pace, with World Rugby explicitly denying that New Zealand had any role in the decision, the implications of World Rugby's emphasis on a "one size fits all" approach were not lost on the Scots, for whom a cancelled game meant the end of their tournament. Almost as soon as Bech's tweet alerted them to the impending announcement, an "apoplectic" Dodson and McKay entered a series of bruisingly confrontational meetings with tournament director Alan Gilpin and World Rugby chief executive Brett Gosper, meetings which only wrapped up late into the evening.

With emotions running high, the vitriol seeped out into the open. The Scots engaged the services of a razor-sharp QC who questioned World Rugby's understanding of its own regulations as Dodson and McKay insisted the Japan game was put back 24 hours or moved to another venue.

World Rugby retreated into lectures about precedent. The Italians promised damnation if Scotland were not damned alongside them. Japan coach Jamie Joseph stirred the pot with the acidic assessment: "The key difference between us and Scotland is that my team is motivated by achieving something that is great, not avoiding an embarrassment."

It was hardly an auspicious lead-up to Japan and Scotland's long-awaited pool decider. As they waited to see whether the match would go ahead, Joseph fumed while counterpart Gregor Townsend clenched his teeth so hard it looked as if he might crack a molar. The mood in the Scottish and Japanese camps was of defiance, mixed with despair that rugby's jamboree had been so debased.

Meanwhile two storms raged. Outside, the violence of typhoon Hagibis tore at Japan. Yet, as far as rugby is concerned, it is the devastation to the game wrought by what the Scots at least see as an entirely man-made disaster which may live longer in sporting infamy.