On Thursday, it was a rugby story. 48 hours later, it was a humanitarian story, and not one with a good ending.
Safe in the sunny confines of Miyazaki, Mako Vunipola detailed the pain and panic of leaving his family behind in Tokyo, just as Typhoon Hagibis made landfall.
“We have families and friends there,” the England forward said, just hour before he should have been preparing for the cancelled Rugby World Cup match against France. “That was probably the hardest thing to deal with; realising that the game wouldn’t be on and trying to make plans for them.”
What was outrage at World Rugby’s failure to make sure pool matches went ahead and frustration at not being able to play games that had been a week in the making transformed into concern on Saturday, when the brutal Hagibis hit Japan like nothing seen in decades.
Hagibis was forecast to be the worst tropical cyclone in Japan in 61 years, and as the eye of the storm passed over Tokyo like a strange yet premature release, two men had already been killed with three more missing. Suddenly, rugby wasn’t the topic anymore.
For Vunipola, whose family had only just arrived in Japan, the reassurance came in that the fatalities were extraordinarily low for a storm of this ferocity.
“Japan are pretty used to typhoons and they have regulations to deal with it, so it’s just a case of my family doing as they’re told and us hoping and praying that they’re safe. We are very lucky to be here and I just hope everyone is safe,” Vunipola added.
“My partner came over but went back before the game. My dad has just arrived and my aunties and cousins also came. My auntie has been here for the whole time. My dad only came over for the France game, but I think he will stay for the quarter-final.
“They are still in Tokyo. I am pretty sure Japan can deal with it. It is just trying to make sure they are safe and follow what they are told. We’re just talking to them as much as we can. We have only just finished training so I have only just found out that the typhoon has hit quite big, so I will talk to them after this and see how they are.
“It is worrying, but we’re lucky – we’re pretty sheltered from a lot of that. I didn’t realise how big or how bad the typhoon was going to be until we got told the news. It shows how much we’ve been focusing on the job in hand. Now I just hope the damage isn’t too much and people are okay.”
The loosehead prop speaks openly and honestly about what is transpiring in Japan. Perhaps there is not a better member of this current England squad to demonstrate why, at the end of the day, rugby no longer matters. Not today, not this weekend and possibly not for the days ahead.
With family in the firing line as Hagibis pounded the Kanto area, Vunipola openly discussed his genuine concerns. There was no talk about quarter-final opponents, or how training to be the best version of himself, but only a natural concern that the rest of the country carried. Vunipola may have been safe with the rest of us in Miyazaki, but the thoughts were very much with those friends and family in Tokyo.
“Obviously you’re focused on rugby but you know it’s not the be-all and end-all, especially when you see things like this,” said Vunipola. “You worry for people’s safety in typhoons and you hope nothing serious does happen. But unfortunately there’s already been a death.
“You just pray and hope that it doesn’t happen too much. In terms of rugby, you want to focus on that as much as you can, but you realise at the end of the day it’s all about safety which is probably why they’ve made that call and we’re not playing today.”
The brutality for Vunipola is that all of this coincides when he had enough on his plate to worry about. The Saracens prop has only just returned from hamstring surgery, which led to a setback when he damaged the scar tissue left by the operation, and what should have been his most important run-out yet to prove he has a future at this World Cup was called off just when he found himself raring to go. As possibly the most nonchalant member of the England squad, that says a lot.
“It’s been chaos, in terms of logistics. You are always disappointed [to miss a game],” Vunipola said. “Myself, I wanted to play as much as I can, to get a bit more game-time under my belt. But you can’t control these things and it’s pretty serious. We as players don’t make those calls, so we’ve just got to deal with it.’
“We’d had a tough day in training on Wednesday so personally, I was a bit gutted because I’d worked hard. You want to play for your country as much as you can, but this has happened and we’re here now. We’ve had two good days of training and we move on.”
The toll of Saturday’s training session in Miyazaki – held in front of the public in an open session – was there for all to see afterwards. “You should have seen myself out there today – I was sucking in seagulls!” he added.
The question is, once the debris is cleared and the country returns to normal, how does the show go on. It starts with a team selection, and Vunipola will have his eyes on it. “They definitely push you in training so if I am involved next week, I know they will be ready for me to play.”