DAVID BARNES in YOKOHAMA
MARK DODSON’S attempts to build public sympathy for Scotland’s potential World Cup cold-shouldering if Typhoon Hagibis leaves the Yokohama International Stadium unfit to host Sunday night’s crucial pool match against host nation Japan seems to have back-fired – with the global game’s governing body issuing a stern rebuke of his decision to play out the drama in the media.
The Chief Executive of the Scottish Rugby Union appeared on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning and later gave a press conference at the team’s hotel in Yokohama, explaining that Nick De Marco – a QC from a leading sports practice in London – had “backed the fact there is flexibility in the schedule” for games to be played on a different day or at a different venue to what had been initially scheduled.
Scotland are set to tumble out the tournament if the game is cancelled instead, after World Rugby decided that it could not guarantee rescheduling all the games potentially effected by the storm, so it therefore could not reschedule any.
If the game is cancelled, it is recorded as a 0-0 draw, meaning both Japan and Scotland will get two league points. That means that, unless Samoa pull-off a shock win over Ireland (preventing Ireland from even getting a bonus point), the Scots will finish third in Pool A, and therefore be eliminated from the competition. It would be a shocking way to throw any team out of a major competition.
Dodson called for a “common sense approach” to resolving the situation in order to “preserve the integrity” of the tournament. He stressed that while he did not want to go to law, he is confident that there is a strong legal argument for opposing World Rugby’s stance.
Within three hours, World Rugby had issued a statement of their own.
It read –
World Rugby Statement of Clarification
It is disappointing that the Scottish Rugby Union should make such comments at a time when we are doing everything we can to enable all Sunday’s matches to take place as scheduled, and when there is a real and significant threat to public safety owing to what is predicted to be one of the largest and most destructive typhoons to hit Japan since 1958.
Along with the 19 other teams, the Scottish Rugby Union signed the Rugby World Cup 2019 terms of participation, which clearly state in Section 5.3: “Where a pool Match cannot be commenced on the day in which it is scheduled, it shall not be postponed to the following day, and shall be considered as cancelled. In such situations, the result shall be declared a draw and Teams will be allocated two Match points each and no score registered.”
As outlined during Thursday’s media conference in Tokyo, the core principle that could enable us to explore a departure from the terms of participation, is a fair and consistent application of the rescheduling for all teams in a safe environment for teams, fans and essential match services. The sheer predicted scale and impact of the typhoon, and the complexity of team movements for eight matches, meant that an even-handed application was just not possible without putting safety at risk. Therefore, it was the fair and correct decision for all teams to maintain the position outlined in the terms of participation.
It would be inappropriate to make further comment at a time when we are fully focused on the safety of everyone and this weekend’s matches.
While Dodson had been at pains to strike a conciliatory note, he did make it very clear that the Scottish Rugby Union would consider a cancellation of the match wholly unacceptable and stressed that they are prepared to fight tooth and nail for their right to stay in the tournament until such time as they are knocked out on the pitch.
“As it stands, World Rugby are still maintaining the position that if the game can’t take place on Sunday, there will be a cancellation,” he explained. “We engaged with World Rugby as soon as we knew this would be a possibility on Wednesday night. We talked to them and they explained to us that the game would be in jeopardy, simply because of the size of the storm, then if it did go to Monday, it would be cancelled. They also told us the England-France game would be cancelled. We absorbed that information, looked it through, and we saw it was based on the participation agreement. We took legal advice that challenged the view, and then we got a QC from a leading sports practice in London, Nick De Marco, and he backed the fact there is flexibility in the schedule.
“The last thing we want to do is get tied up in legal matters,” he continued. “There is now a legal opinion that supports our view [that] there is flexibility in the scheduling. What we really need to be talking about is a common sense approach for what has been and promises to be a fantastic tournament, we really need to be thinking [about] what the supporters over here, the Japanese people and rugby supporters, want to see happen. And that is what we want to be talking about.”
The Italian problem
A major sticking point is that Italy have already had their must-win game against New Zealand cancelled and have now left the tournament without any official protest, although team captain Sergio Parisse and head coach Conor O’Shea have since expressed their displeasure to the media, with O’Shea stating that he would be angry if Scotland were given a dispensation that hadn’t been available to his team.
“That anger wouldn’t be directed at Scotland if there were any legal challenge to get it played but against the principle of it all,” he said. “We would be fired up ourselves. You simply cannot argue that Japan against Scotland has to go ahead come what may because it means something and not apply that same logic to our game against the All Blacks.”
Dodson expressed sympathy for Italy’s plight but stressed that his duty had to be defending Scotland’s interests.
“I don’t think it’s one rule for Scotland and one rule for Italy,” he said. “What we’re saying is they took a decision, quite quickly, around those games. We were the last game to be played and it’s a huge pivotal game. Our view is it doesn’t sit right with us, we don’t feel it’s just, we feel there’s other ways.
“There’s been massive amounts of contingency planning going on, but none of it seems to have been enacted. We’re just saying to them … we don’t want to criticise World Rugby, they’re running a first-class tournament, and I’m convinced they’ll do everything they can to get this game played on Sunday, and the weather at the moment looks like it’s slightly improving.
“My job is to look at the pessimistic side and say, well if despite the best endeavours this doesn’t happen, there’s something that just doesn’t feel right about not fulfilling the final game and Scotland – or anyone else, in fact – exiting the competition. I really feel sorry for our Italian friends who are now finding themselves on the way home because they didn’t have time to recalibrate and decide what they had to do next.”
Dodson added that he believes Japan are supportive of the idea of finding a game, but that it was really a battle for Scotland to fight.
“We’ve been looking after our own position, but we have spoken to the JRU and they are keen for this game to go on,” he said. “I think [Japan coach] Jamie Joseph’s point was that: ‘We are an outstanding side who want to play in a world class sense’. I think they want to be talking about being 3-0 up in this pool and going through for the right reasons. I think everybody wants to play this game, I think the rugby world wants to see us play this game, and what we’re asking for is a common-sense approach that allows this game to be played, in perfect safety, 24 hours after the storm clears.
“This country has a phenomenal track record of getting things back running once they’ve had major disasters – they are used to it and are probably the best in the world at doing that. We’re just saying, give them that little bit of time where the sporting integrity of this tournament is not compromised.
A level playing field
“I’m here to protect the best interests of Scottish rugby, but it’s a wider issue than that. I think we are making this play on behalf of the rugby public who want to see this game be played. There’s a massive broadcast audience worldwide, and we have an obligation to our fans, our sponsors and our partners, to make sure we explore every avenue possible.
“Take our situation in Scotland, we are a small nation with 11,000 adult players. This is a massive stage for us to perform on, there are kids who want to be the next Darcy [Graham], the next Hoggy [Stuart Hogg], the next Finn [Russell] and this is a massive stage for us to play on, so to have it taken away is pretty difficult for an organisation like us because it is a massive area of growth.
“We’re not being aggressive, we’re being constructive and we’re trying to have dialogue.”
There is a big question over whether one of the leading rugby nations such as New Zealand or England would have been treated the same way if they found themselves in this boat. Both have had games called off, but their qualification for the quarter-finals was already guaranteed, so they have, in fact, benefitted from the decision as it has allowed them to take players out of the firing line this weekend.
“We are trying to base this argument on the fact that there is sporting integrity around this [but] if you are an economic powerhouse of the game, I think it comes with more clout, and I think most people feel that if it had been an economic-powerhouses – let’s say new Zealand – perhaps more thought would have been given to a flexible approach,” said Dodson.
“I think in the court of public opinion, we’ve already won,” he added. “I think you can see from social media, that people feel that this doesn’t feel quite right. And all we’re saying … we’re not being strident, we’re not being difficult, we want to compromise … is we’re asking for a 24-hour delay, so the game can be played in perfect safety.
“Right from the get-go on Wednesday night, we said to World Rugby we will play any place, anywhere. We will play behind closed doors, we’ll play in full stadiums. We will travel the length and breadth of Japan. We were ready to go from Hamamatsu. There was no response to that. And then we were told the game will be cancelled [if it wasn’t going to be] in Yokohama.
“What we want to do today, before the weekend, is give people a maximum amount of time to think about it and to look at the optics of this and to make the sensible change for everyone.”
Going to law?
Dodson was asked if a legal challenge is likely should the game not go ahead on Sunday. “I think our view is that we have to reflect on that matter at that time,” he replied. “This is a glorious, world-class sporting occasion. We don’t want to be the people that taint that. But we also don’t want to be the collateral damage of this.
“This is important to us as a nation, and I think the rugby following public around the globe believe the same way. And I think we’re being, if you like, driven down a tramline around scheduling flexibility that doesn’t need to be there. And that’s why we took the legal route. It was just to say we’ve had a different opinion, two different opinions, one from the QC, that challenges that rigidity over scheduling.”