England tour of Japan could be cancelled if Japan declares coronavirus state of emergency

Jack de Menezes
England are due to return to Kobe for the first time since the World Cup but their tour of Japan is likely to be cancelled: Getty

The Rugby Football Union may be forced to cancel the summer tour of Japan after reports suggested that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is on the verge of placing the country in a state of emergency.

A surge in coronavirus cases in Tokyo, which saw 143 new cases confirmed on Sunday to take the total to more than 1,000, is triggering fears that a second spike in the spread of Covid-19 is coming. As a result, Prime Minister Abe is expected to make a declaration on Tuesday that will see Tokyo and Osaka placed in state of emergencies, which according to Japanese news agency Kyodo will become active from Wednesday.

Once declared, authorities in the named prefectures will be able to tell members of the public to stay at home and order the closure of school, theatres, sports stadiums and other facilities.

England are due to travel to Japan at the end of June before facing Eddie Jones’s former side in Oita on 4 July and Kobe on 11 July, the latter of which falls in the Hyogo Prefecture that borders Osaka.

Currently the RFU are monitoring the situation in Japan and remain in talks with World Rugby and the Japan Rugby Football Union regarding the two-Test tour, with a deadline set at the end of the month to make a decision on whether the fixtures will go ahead or not.

As a result, the RFU do not have an updated stance on the tour - which will be the first time that England have toured Japan for a singular series following last autumn’s Rugby World Cup - but the announcement of a state of emergency that could last up to six months would take the decision out of their hands.

“We are in regular dialogue with World Rugby and a lot of the unions around the world, the conversations we are having around the July tours,” RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney said last Thursday. “It is too early to say. We expect to be able to make a decision on that towards the end of April.”

The JRFU has already announced the cancellation of the All-Japan Championship play-offs, which were due to take place across two weekends at the end of next month, while Olympic Games in Tokyo have also been postponed by a year to July 2023.

Sweeney, the former chief executive of the British Olympic Association, insists it is a much easier task to play two Tests between the same two sides than holding an Olympic Games that involves more than 200 nations and 11,300 athletes, but he did accept that it looks very unlikely that the tour will be cancelled.

“You’d probably say it’s a strong possibility but it’s slightly different for the Olympics,” Sweeney said. “With the Olympics you’ve got 213 nations, 11,000 athletes coming into Tokyo and you’ve got different parts of the world at different stages in the crisis, so it’s much harder to manage.

“But at least with the tour you’ve got just two countries involved so a bit will depend on the state of Japan and the state of England as we approach it, the players will have to be conditioned in a state where they can go out there and play. So it’s not definitely off, but we’ve set ourselves a deadline with World Rugby at the end of April to make a decision on that.”

England head coach Jones last week signed a new contract extension through to the next World Cup in 2023, but he remains out in Japan with his wife after they flew their last month to be close with her family during the coronavirus crisis.

“It’s not to that extent (of lockdown) at the moment,” Jones said on what the situation is currently like in the Far East. “Life is relatively normal but they are anticipating another spurt so things are tightening up a little.”

As well as England, both Wales and New Zealand are due to visit Japan this summer before playing each other.

The government has been under pressure to respond to the growing coronavirus outbreak which has infected 4,563 people throughout the country, with 104 deaths.

Last week, Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike indicated she was in favour of such a declaration so that she would be given authority to urge residents to be more vigilant about social distancing. Hirofumi Yoshimura, governor of Osaka, and the Japan Medical Association also stepped up calls for Mr Abe to make the declaration.

Mr Abe has been reluctant to take more comprehensive action on the outbreak for fear of the impact on the economy, but changed his mind after seeing the surge of infections in metropolitan areas, reported the Japan Times.

He met with health minister Katsunobu Kato, economic revitalisation minister Yasutoshi Nishimura and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga on Sunday to discuss the coronavirus situation.

England are due to return to Kobe in July (PA)

Mr Nishimura said during a television program earlier that day that declaring a state or emergency after an explosive increase in the number of positive coronavirus cases “would be too late”.

He said the declaration would be made “without hesitation” if signs of an “overshoot” in infections are observed.