National

Sudden stadium shift leaves Rugby World Cup high and dry

Reuters, Kyodo

World Rugby officials are seeking urgent talks with organizers of the 2019 Rugby World Cup following Friday’s surprise announcement that Japan’s proposed new National Stadium won’t be ready in time for the tournament.

The 80,000-seat stadium in Tokyo, which will also be the centerpiece of the 2020 Olympics, was scheduled to host the biggest matches in 2019, including the opening game and the final of the first Rugby World Cup awarded to Asia.

However, those plans were all thrown out the window Friday, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that the original design of the stadium was being scrapped because of escalating costs.

With construction yet to begin and the project now on hold while the government decides on a cheaper model, Abe conceded the stadium will not be ready for the Rugby World Cup.

“We will not make it in time,” Abe told a news conference.

Friday’s shock announcement seemingly caught World Rugby officials by surprise, coming just months after they had publicly announced that the new Tokyo stadium would host the final.

“World Rugby is extremely disappointed by today’s announcement that the new National Stadium will not be ready to host Rugby World Cup 2019 matches despite repeated assurances to the contrary from the Japan Rugby 2019 Organizing Committee and Japan Sport Council,” World Rugby said in a statement Friday.

“The National Stadium was a compelling and important pillar of Japan’s successful bid to host Rugby World Cup 2019, which was awarded to the Japan Rugby Football Union in 2009.”

Japan spent years lobbying to become the first Asian country to be awarded the right to host the Rugby World Cup, which began in 1987 and has been played every four years since.

This year’s tournament will be held in England and Wales.

Japan’s supporters accused the sport’s bosses of rotating rugby’s biggest spectacle among the game’s traditional powers and vowed to take the sport into the world’s fastest developing markets.

“World Rugby is urgently seeking further detailed clarification from the Japan Rugby 2019 Organizing Committee and will need to consider the options relating to the impact of today’s announcement,” World Rugby said in the statement.

The proposed new National Stadium was in one of 12 Japanese cities picked to host matches at the tournament, which will be played between Sept. 6 and Nov. 20, 2019.

There was no official announcement from either the Japanese organizers or the government on whether they will look for an existing stadium in Tokyo or another city outside the capital to fill the void.

However, the most likely replacement venue for the final is Yokohama’s International Stadium, which hosted the 2002 Soccer World Cup final between Brazil and Germany.

Yokohama’s 72,000-seat stadium was not on the original shortlist of venues bidding to host matches but World Rugby officials agreed late last year to accept a late application from Yokohama and Kanagawa Prefecture.

Two days after saying that “There is no alternative plan. We believe the stadium will be built in time,” Akira Shimazu, CEO of the local organizing committee, expressed his disappointment with the government’s decision.

“The government at no stage told us they were undertaking a review. While we understand the decision, we had planned to use the new National Stadium for the opening game and final,” he said at Japan Rugby Football Union headquarters. “It’s a huge disappointment, though I strongly believe it will not affect the success of the tournament.”

Hong Kong and Singapore both initially asked if they could host matches but their requests were rejected.