Quake aftershocks set to continue
Huw Turner
March 21, 2011
New Zealand Rugby World Cup Minister Murray McCully and IRB Chairman Bernard Lapasset, CBS Canterbury Arena, Christchurch, New Zealand, March 16, 2011
New Zealand Rugby World Cup Minister Murray McCully and IRB Chairman Bernard Lapasset confirm the decision to move matches away from Christchurch © Getty Images

The decision to award New Zealand the hosting rights for the 2011 Rugby World Cup was derided in large sections of the British press. What were they thinking of? This small, isolated country of four million inhabitants, admittedly the world's greatest rugby playing nation, had already had a turn and could not possibly deliver the sort of commercial success necessary to fund the expansion of the global game. It was time to move things on. Japan was the obvious choice, according to some, a new frontier for the game, one of the world's powerhouse economies guaranteed to generate the sought- after megabucks.

The IRB could not have known this, of course, but if they had awarded the World Cup to Japan, recent events would suggest that we would not be having a World Cup at all this year. The physical and circumstantial aftershocks following the massive earthquake in Christchurch and the cataclysmic earthquake and tsunami in northern Japan are only just beginning to make themselves felt. It is almost an embarrassment to be writing about something as trivial as a game played with an oval ball when so many lives have been blighted, and will continue to be blighted into an uncertain future. But life does go on, and amid so much chaos and uncertainty there is comfort of sorts to be had in clinging onto the familiar and attempting to figure out where New Zealand rugby, in particular, is heading.

The decision to move away from Christchurch and reallocate Pool matches and quarter-final matches to other venues around the country was clearly the only one that could be made. It was widely anticipated in New Zealand and there has been no credible dissent audible. In addition to uncertainties about the integrity of AMI Stadium, there are all the other infrastructural issues associated with Christchurch. How could it realistically cope in a matter of months with an influx of national and international visitors? Not that anyone would want to travel to a known earthquake zone at a time when further quakes are clearly possible and where accommodation and hospitality would be stretched past breaking point.

Without those matches in Christchurch, and without the Cantabrian flavour added to the World Cup mix, this is now clearly going to be a different World Cup. Canterbury is one of the powerhouses of New Zealand rugby, the partisan nature of rugby followers there legendary, notorious even. The citizens of Christchurch, for sporting, commercial and cultural reasons, will be disappointed to miss out but, frankly, they have more important issues. The word refugee is not being used in this context because New Zealand is a first world country with all the services and infrastructure implied in that term. But people are fleeing Christchurch in droves, their nerves and confidence shattered by the unrelenting realities of living in a place so fundamentally unstable.

Historically, large natural events like the earthquake have unforeseen circumstances. The knock-on effects, if you excuse the rugby pun, are currently unknown. What, for example, is happening at this time with junior rugby in the schools and in the local clubs and what impact will that have in the development of the game in the South Island of New Zealand? Could we find that ten years down the track the supply line of players has been disrupted or distorted to any significant extent?

As might be expected, the response of the current Crusaders squad, many of whom are locals, has been staunch. Prior to the demolition of the Highlanders at Carisbrook over the weekend, it looked as though the good times had returned for New Zealand's southernmost franchise, the place bursting at the seams. The thing that really burst was the hosts' early season bubble, but could it be that the red and blacks are feeding off the adrenaline rush that comes in any post-traumatic period?

Perhaps we will get a better idea this weekend when the side travels to London to play their Super Rugby fixture at Twickenham. From a player welfare standpoint I find this decision extraordinary and I am sure the All Black coaches will be more than a little anxious. The expanded format for 2011 was also scaled down in that the concentration on local conferences was designed to minimise the long distances travelled between South Africa and the east coast of Australia and New Zealand. Even allowing for the fact that the Crusaders follow up their European jaunt with a bye weekend, I fail to see how this trip is going to assist them in the long term. Once again, commercial considerations play a part, along with the emotional appeal of wanting to raise funds for the Christchurch earthquake victims. But what about the players? I fear they are being used as part of an exercise which cannot benefit them.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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