TOYOTA, Japan — At times it felt like only a force of nature could stop New Zealand’s streak of wins at the Rugby World Cup. And that’s what happened.
The threat of Typhoon Hagibis forced Rugby World Cup organizers in Japan to cancel two pool games scheduled for Saturday, including the Pool B match between the defending champion All Blacks and Italy in Toyota.
That ended New Zealand’s perfect record in the group stage.
The three-time champions had won all 31 of their pool games dating to the first tournament in 1987. New Zealand had also won 17 straight games at the World Cup, playoffs included, before Thursday’s announcement by organizers.
Hagibis may be a blip for New Zealand’s World Cup — it still qualified for the quarterfinals and is still the favorite — but organizers warned it’s the most powerful typhoon Japan has seen this typhoon season. It has the same force as a Category 5 hurricane.
Hagibis “is highly likely to cause considerable disruption in the Tokyo, Yokohama and Toyota City areas throughout Saturday,” rugby’s governing body said, warning fans there to stay indoors.
The England-France Pool C game in Yokohama on Saturday was also canceled and other games on Sunday might be affected.
Japan’s World Cup had no contingencies for pool games that couldn’t be played on the day they were scheduled. No provision for a postponement and no chance of being played at another venue. The rules mean the game is called a scoreless draw and both teams get two log points. It’s the first time any Rugby World Cup games have been cancelled.
The All Blacks will get over it.
After all, they still finish top of Pool B, as expected. New Zealand still has the playoffs and an attempt at a third straight World Cup title and fourth overall ahead of it.
Coach Steve Hansen had no issues with the game being called off for safety reasons.
“Clearly, this is our biggest tournament. So, is it frustrating? Of course it is but the reality is we can’t control the weather,” Hansen said. “Do we charge on and put people’s lives at risk or do we lead and make a decision that’s around making sure people are safe? It’s a no-brainer.”
Italy had a sliver of a chance of going through to the quarterfinals if it beat the defending champion for the first time in its history. No one was expecting that, though, and it wasn’t forefront in Italian players’ minds in Toyota.
Instead, Italy was sad it couldn’t give veterans Sergio Parisse, Leonardo Ghiraldini and Alessandro Zanni fitting farewells after their long service to the team.
No. 8 Parisse, the captain, has played 142 tests, breaking the record for a northern hemisphere player in the Azzurri’s last game at the World Cup against South Africa. He is the second most-capped player ever behind New Zealand World Cup winner Richie McCaw. The 36-year-old Parisse said he was going to retire after the World Cup and was keen to go out against the world’s best team in Toyota.
Hooker Ghiraldini, who is 34, had to struggle to recover from a bad knee injury to make Italy’s squad and was due to be given his first action in Japan against New Zealand. It was to be in recognition of his 13 years and more than 100 tests of commitment in the front row.
O’Shea described “horrible” disappointment among his players. Ghiraldini reportedly shed tears after a training session when news broke that the game against New Zealand had been canceled.
“I’m not saying we would have beaten them, but you want to finish on the pitch,” O’Shea said. “Anything can happen and you’re very emotional especially for Leonardo Ghiraldini, who missed his last chance to play in an Italy jersey, and to hear that your international career is finished after training is tough to take.
“These guys have given their lives to Italian rugby and their World Cup has ended on the training pitch, when it should be on the playing field.”