Christchurch on the sidelines of Rugby World Cup

Associated Press
England rugby team coach Martin Johnson looks at damage to the pitch inside the AMI Stadium in Christchurch, New Zealand, Wednesday, Sept., 7, 2011. Christchurch was to have been the base for the England team for the upcoming Rugby World Cup. However due to the earthquake of Feb. 22, 2011, and the damage done to infrastructure, hotels and stadium, their base and all their matches have been moved away from Christchurch. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

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England rugby team coach Martin Johnson looks at damage to the pitch inside the AMI Stadium in Christchurch, …

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand (AP) — Christchurch should be preparing for Saturday's Rugby World Cup clash between England and Argentina.

Instead, the rugby-mad South Island city is watching from the sidelines, unable to host matches after a deadly earthquake in February destroyed its historic center and left a bent and buckled stadium in its wake.

New Zealand's so-called "Garden City" is doing its best to stay involved in the six-week tournament, setting up open-air screenings of matches in its main park and encouraging tourists to visit. But disappointment hangs heavy over local fans.

A new NZ$60 million ($50 million) stand, added so the city's stadium could host five first-round matches and two quarterfinals, will never get to seat the 13,000 supporters it was built for. With the International Rugby Board keen to take its flagship tournament to both new and more lucrative regions for future editions, Christchurch may now have to wait decades for its next World Cup match.

"I was lucky enough to play at the stadium there against the British Lions in 1959," former New Zealand All Black Fergie McCormick said. "For all the games I played there and the years and years and years I played on it, to see it now is a real shame."

A Christchurch resident, McCormick was driving to a funeral on Feb. 22 when the devastating quake hit.

"My partner says to me 'we've lost a wheel,' and I said 'no we haven't, look at the road,'" McCormick said, gesturing as he recounted the story. "It was coming at us. When she looked across to say something to me, I was up here and she was down here and the truck almost tipped over.

"We carried on with the funeral but we had to have it outside because everything was rocking."

That rocking obliterated the city center, destroying art deco architecture, trashing the catholic cathedral and toppling the spire of the historic Anglican cathedral onto passers-by in the square below.

Seven months later, the whole of the city center is still cordoned off. Entire blocks are reduced to rubble, vacant lots sit between abandoned buildings like missing teeth and the remaining structures are disfigured by cracked and crumbling masonry.

Piles of broken glass still lie where they landed and the tram lines no longer run true.

England team manager Martin Johnson brought some of his players to Christchurch on Wednesday, where they witnessed the damage inflicted by a disaster that killed more than 180 people and left an estimated 1,200 buildings in need of demolition.

"When you saw the cathedral spire down, it was just sad — tragic. Rugby's second to that this week," Johnson said. "People say 'how has it affected you?' Well, we just go and play somewhere else."

England now plays two extra matches in Dunedin, 300 kilometers (190 miles) south of Christchurch. Australia had been set to face Ireland and Russia at the ground still known to rugby fans around the world as Lancaster Park, with Argentina vs. Scotland the other pool match relocated.

Christchurch's two quarterfinals went to Auckland, New Zealand's biggest city, which is also hosting both semifinals and the Oct. 23 final. The International Rugby Board announced another fundraising appeal on Wednesday to help regenerate rugby in the city.

Christchurch had already been bruised by an overnight 7.1 magnitude earthquake on Sept. 4, 2010, when it was shaken again in February.

"The first one was a rumbling like you were inside a concrete mixer," said Tane Norton, another former All Black living in Christchurch. "The next one was just vicious. I was just watching my wife dry some dishes and putting them in a cupboard and, as I turned around, the plate's come out and hit me in the back of the head.

"The water came out of the sink in a blob. It didn't splash out: it just came out in one lot. That was the speed of it."

That 6.3-magnitude trembler, centered southeast of the city, created forces 2.2 times stronger than gravity — four times that measured in the deadly quake that struck Japan the following month.

"That broke our hearts," Mayor Bob Parker said. "It brought down so many buildings in the city and changed the landscape and meant that any opportunity we might have had at that point to get the stadium up and running for the Rugby World Cup was out of the question."

The cost of making the old stadium safe and reinsuring it against future seismic events mean rebuilding is unlikely. A final decision has yet to be made but some of the steel from the site is already holding up the remains of the Anglican cathedral, while the turf will be lifted and reused at a new sports venue nearby.

Parker is hoping ambitious rebuilding plans to remodel the center as a low-rise city with more green space get approved by the government early next year.

Norton, a former hooker who captained the All Blacks to victory against the 1977 Lions, had been set to watch Christchurch's World Cup matches from a rented hospitality box.

But the disappointment of missing out on that has been tempered.

"It did bring the best out of people," Norton said. "People in New Zealand and all over the world have been so good to Canterbury, it's quite embarrassing and humbling. We've been touched by it. The generosity of this country has been unbelievable.

"People have been coming and staying for a week, just shoveling. They don't know anybody but there's been a lot of friendships made."

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