TOKYO (AFP) - Rugby World Cup organisers on Thursday (Oct 10) cancelled England’s game against France and New Zealand’s clash with Italy as Super Typhoon Hagibis swirls towards Japan, prompting major public safety fears.
“This is a complex and dynamic situation which we have been monitoring extremely closely with the assistance of our weather information experts. We are now in a position to accurately predict the likely impact of Typhoon Hagibis on Rugby World Cup fixtures this weekend," tournament director Alan Gilpin said, announcing the unprecedented step.
“While making every possible effort to put in place a contingency plan that would enable all of Saturday’s matches to be played, it would be grossly irresponsible to leave teams, fans, volunteers and other tournament personnel exposed during what is predicted to be a severe typhoon.
“As a result, we have taken the decision to cancel some matches in order to ensure the safety of all involved. It is the right thing to do, and comes with the support of all stakeholders, including the teams."
It would be the first time in the tournament's 32-year history that a game has been cancelled. Other possible options include changing venues, officials have said.
The 1995 semi-final between hosts South Africa and France was delayed an hour due to a waterlogged pitch, but famously went ahead after cleaning ladies took to it with brooms.
France have postponed their team announcement, scheduled for Thursday morning, pending the World Rugby briefing.
Seven games are scheduled for this weekend, the end of the pool stage, but England v France on Saturday in Yokohama is set to be the worst affected by the typhoon on its current trajectory.
Tournament rules state that a game in the pool phases cannot be rescheduled, as the matches come too thick and fast. Instead they are recorded as a 0-0 draw with both teams given two points.
England and France are already qualified from Pool C, with England top of the group, but Pool A hangs in the balance ahead of Japan's final game against Scotland in Yokohama on Sunday.
If that game were to be abandoned, it would be a disaster for the Scots, who would be eliminated, while Japan go through as shock winners of Pool A with Ireland runners-up.
Organisers said on Thursday: "Every effort is being made to ensure Sunday’s matches will be played as scheduled. A thorough assessment of venues will take place after the typhoon has passed before a final decision is made on Sunday morning."
Gilpin noted: “We fully appreciate that England, France, New Zealand and Italy fans will be disappointed, but we trust they will appreciate that their safety must come first. They will be entitled to a full refund on their match tickets.
“Our message for all fans in Japan for Rugby World Cup is to heed all official advice, stay indoors throughout Saturday and do not attempt to travel on the day.”
Hagibis is ranked as "violent", the highest classification used by the Japanese Meteorological Agency (JMA), and is packing maximum gusts of up to 280 kilometres per hour.
"It is currently a large and violent typhoon. As it moves north and approaches Japan, it will be technically downgraded slightly to a 'very strong' typhoon," said a meteorologist at the Japan Meteorological Agency.
"But the fact remains it will remain very strong when it arrives," he told AFP.
"This is a very large typhoon, which means it may affect significant impact in large areas," he added.
Japan is also hosting its annual Formula One Grand Prix in Suzuka, west of Tokyo, this weekend, with practice sessions starting on Friday. Young driver Jules Bianchi crashed and later died in bad weather conditions caused by a typhoon in 2014.
Typhoon Faxai, which struck Japan about two weeks before the World Cup, caused widespread disruption, leaving two people dead, cutting power supplies and causing more than 100 flights to be cancelled.
Hagibis is currently forecast to clip the south-eastern corner of Japan near Tokyo and Yokohama, a similar trajectory to Faxai.
It is expected to weaken considerably as it approaches but Japan is still bracing itself for torrential rain and fierce winds from what forecasters have warned is one of the most powerful storms to hit the country in recent years.
Organisers have touted "robust" contingency plans for every eventuality after deciding to hold the tournament in Japan, subject to around 20 typhoons per year as well as being one of the most seismically active regions on Earth.
Faxai made landfall in Chiba, east of Tokyo, on Sept 9, causing pandemonium including a lengthy power black-out that affected half a million homes.
That storm also had an impact on some teams' arrivals at the Rugby World Cup. England were stranded for hours at Narita Airport, and Australia delayed their arrival from Sydney.