By Mitch Phillips
TOKYO (Reuters) - Rugby World Cup organisers were forced to call off matches for the first time in the tournament's 32-year history on Thursday - eliminating Italy as a result - saying the risk from Typhoon Hagibis made hosting them an impossibility on safety grounds.
With the huge storm set to potentially devastate parts of Japan, Italy's game against New Zealand in Toyota and England's match versus France in Yokohama on Saturday have been cancelled while Japan's game against Scotland on Sunday is also in doubt.
Italy could have qualified for the quarter-finals with a shock win over double defending champions New Zealand and star player Sergio Parisse said the decision would have been different if the All Blacks had been facing elimination.
Host nation Japan would advance to the quarter-finals for the first time if their game in Yokohama is called off.
The sport's governing body World Rugby and tournament officials told a news conference the decision had been taken due to the huge disruption expected from the typhoon, predicted to be one of the most violent to hit the region in recent years.
"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," said tournament director Alan Gilpin.
Super Typhoon Hagibis is expected to bring torrential rain, high winds, storm surges and high waves on Saturday.
Other events are also being hit.
Organisers of Sunday's Japanese Formula One Grand Prix, obviously mindful of the fact that driver Jules Bianchi died after a crash at Suzuka in 2014 when the track was soaked by Typhoon Phanfone, are closely monitoring the situation, while a 2020 Olympics BMX cycling test event has been brought forward.
Gilpin defended the decision to hold the tournament, the first to be hosted in Asia, at this time of year.
"We always knew there would be risks but it’s rare for there to be a typhoon of this size at this stage of the year," he said, adding that he did not feel the integrity of the tournament had been compromised. "We have no regrets."
Tournament regulations state that cancelled games are ruled a 0-0 draw, with two points going to each team.
That would be enough to ensure Japan reach the quarter-finals if their game falls victim to the typhoon, which might look like some sort of sporting karma to their supporters.
Four years ago Japan beat South Africa in the biggest upset in rugby history but then became the first team to fail to reach the knockout round after winning three pool games, being edged out on bonus points by Scotland.
A decision on whether that match will be played is set to be made early on Sunday and the Scottish Rugby Union said it expected the game to go ahead.
"Scottish Rugby fully expects contingency plans to be put in place to enable Scotland to contest for a place in the quarter-finals on the pitch and will be flexible to accommodate this," the SRU said on Twitter.
Coach Gregor Townsend added: "I hope everyone involved in the tournament wants the game to be played and will do their utmost for the game to be played. We have got to believe, and have faith in the organisers, even if it is behind closed doors or played at a different venue."
Ireland are due to play their final game against Samoa on Saturday knowing a bonus point victory would ensure progress. A win without a bonus point, or even a bonus point in defeat, would also send the Irish through if Japan's game is called off.
Italy finished third behind New Zealand and South Africa after their match against the All Blacks was cancelled leaving an angry Parisse to question the tournament regulations.
"If New Zealand needed four or five points against us it would not have been cancelled," said the man who has been the backbone of Italian rugby for years.
"It is ridiculous that there was no Plan B, because it isn't news that typhoons hit Japan.
"Sure, everyone might think that Italy v New Zealand being cancelled counts for nothing because we'd have lost anyway, but we deserved to be respected as a team."
Coach Conor O'Shea said the players' reaction to the news was "horrible." "Their World Cup has ended on the training pitch, when it should be on the playing field," he said.
New Zealand finish top of the group with South Africa going through as runners-up.
Thursday's decision marks the first time a World Cup match has been cancelled since the tournament started in 1987.
The 1995 semi-final between hosts South Africa and France was delayed by an hour due to a waterlogged pitch, but famously went ahead after a team of cleaning ladies took to it with brooms.
If bad weather strikes again in Japan, tournament rules allow for knockout stage games to be rescheduled.
(Additional reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka, Greg Stutuchbury; Editing by Peter Rutherford and Ken Ferris)