SEVERAL OF Christchurch’s 18 metro clubs were hit hard after the earthquake in 2011, not so much in terms of facilities, but in loss of numbers, and other factors which made it tough for players to even make rugby a priority.
Some clubs still need help, but the prevailing sentiment seems to be that they will roll their sleeves up and make do with what they’ve got in the current environment.
There is a lot of damage and liquefaction out in the eastern suburbs of New Brighton and Bexley. Many houses are in the red zone. But the New Brighton Rugby Club survives and indeed has emerged in reasonable shape, all things considered.
Club chairman Wayne Turner is positive that the division one side can build on its top four placing in 2011.
“We were pretty happy by the end of the season. We didn’t lose any open grade teams and picked up a ladies team. We lost but then regained some juniors,” says Turner. “But we sense this year will be more challenging.”
He cites school rolls being down in the area and no direct vibe created from the Rugby World Cup as the All Blacks did not play in the city. But there is plenty of building work in the area, and that may attract more players looking to combine footy with their job.
The club grounds came through remarkably well. Being only 100m from the sea, they are sand-based and swept by an easterly wind, while there was only minor damage to the old clubhouse building.
“If you just sit back and let people leave, you are destined to be down in the dumps,” says Turner.
Lyttelton, whose township was badly hit by the earthquake, is counting the loss through numbers, not just players, but coaches and committee members. Club president Clinton Norris reports that junior numbers were down about 25 percent, and some teams had to default in 2011. He says some players have drifted back.
Many of the local sponsors have gone under, so the club is surviving on its “nest-egg”. This obviously cannot last, so Lyttelton is grateful for any money sent through the union or charitable trust, of which more will be explained.
“The money is good but it cannot get the players. This will affect us for three to four years,” estimates Norris.
Sumner, after a heartening 2010 season, endured a very difficult 2011, as did the whole beachside town east of Christchurch.
“It fell apart. We lost over a quarter of our players,” says club president Andy Toy. One of the issues was rugby families leaving, unable to take the uncertainty. Former All Black Justin Marshall, who had played for Sumner in 2010, uprooted and now lives in Queenstown.
Toy says the outlook is a lot better for 2012, and its main ground at St Leonard’s Square is repaired, but its second field at McCormack’s Bay is “still a mess”. The club is waiting on the council to make a move on that, but has mucked in with the help of the charitable trust and supporters to fix liquefaction.
Sydenham’s four council-owned grounds were all affected with liquefaction and damage to buildings. The suburb is directly to the south of the CBD.
Club captain Brent Goldsmid says the numbers in senior grades have not decreased unduly, but there is depopulation which will impact the junior grades. Last season saw the club lose many of its home games at either Sydenham Park, Barrington Park, Hansen Park or Waltham Park. Often the No 2 ground at Sydenham Park had to be used, and that was not full-size. Council response has been slow – “We’ve learned to be patient,” says Goldsmid – and though they were playing cricket on Sydenham Park when Rugby News drove by, the drainage is apparently caput, filled with silt.
Linwood Rugby Club is one of the worst affected, and a drive through the congested eastern suburbs to reach Linfield Park reveals one of the club’s main problems: players getting to training and matches, let alone opposition. There are closed roads, empty streets, and do not even bother trying to reach high speeds.
Linfield Sports rugby manager is former Crusaders halfback Scott Hansen. He shows me the clubrooms, which are spacious and were once the envy of the province. But on closer inspection, the floor has slipped, there are cracks, and up to half the building is for the chop.
“There are still bills to be paid, but at this stage it’s a case of ‘hurry up and wait’,” says Hansen. Linwood playing numbers were down by up to 18 percent in 2011.
“The biggest and most positive thing to happen to New Zealand rugby was winning the World Cup, so we hope a lot of young boys and girls see that and get involved in the game and we hope that has a flow-on effect into the registrations.”
The much-awaited 125th jubilee was postponed last year. It was felt not to be appropriate given what people were dealing with in their everyday lives. The publication of a commemorative book penned by Rugby News’ Canterbury writer Bob Schumacher is on hold.
But that does not mean Linwood is sitting on its hands waiting for the word from on high or hoping for hand-outs.
“There’s a lot of resolve here. Tane Norton is here every day he can be, Fergie McCormick is coaching the ladies. A lot of the old boys have come back and we do need good leadership and governance going forward in these challenging times,” Hansen says.
Last season was thus not so much about winning but playing with your mates and using it as a release valve. It is a tight-knit club and many of the players live just around the corner, but rugby went on the backburner at times.
“All teams and clubs start the season with the aim of winning the championship. That was the aim on February 21 (2011). By February 23 it wasn’t even an issue. If we had a team, that was great. You could see the relief, though, in the first home game at the club last season.
The stress was released and it was a really special night.”
The All Blacks brought some smiles when they trained at Linwood during the World Cup, but the club missed out on hosting Scotland, Georgia and Ireland as training venues.
“The ambition is to move forward positively,” says Hansen. “There’s a lot of non-rugby related stresses which affected coaches and managers, and it sapped a lot of people. So we have a lot of challenges.”
Former All Black Nathan Mauger is RDO at High School Old Boys, which plays at Hagley Park, just to the west of the CBD. The club won the 2011 division one title, and Mauger says that happily the numbers are “healthy” again for 2012.
“Everyone has mucked in and tried to make the most of the situation,” he says. Whether that be changing match venues at late notice, as was the case when the club’s colts side had to play Sydenham at another council ground. Last year the club had a week off, but kept training and lost little momentum. Mauger is acutely aware that others were not so lucky.
Happily, though the Canterbury union posted a hefty $563,000 loss at last week’s AGM, the financial burden will not fall back on clubs in the form of increased subs.
As for the vexed question of loss of playing numbers, the full story will not be clearer until all registrations are in.
The overall rugby in schools picture looks slightly brighter than at club level.
Of the Press Cup schools, Shirley Boys’ High was affected in 2011 with its main ground out of action, but that is now playable. The others – St Bede’s College, Christ’s College and Christchurch Boys’ High School – are to the north or west of the CBD, so have escaped largely unscathed.
There are issues, especially in some of the smaller schools based in the eastern suburbs, around drops in rolls, and the resultant impact on numbers in teams and numbers of teams. Boarding numbers at St Andrew’s College, to the west, were said to be affected, but this was not believed to be likely to impact badly on rugby teams.
There was a lot of co-operation between schools in 2011, with facilities being shared and the council juggling the use of grounds among college teams. The key for 2012 was having a smooth transition between summer and winter sports.
Canterbury rugby administrator in schools central support manager Mark Ealey felt the outlook was mostly positive: “We’re looking a helluva lot closer to normality this year than in 2011.”
The relief fund
The Canterbury Rugby Earthquake Relief Charitable Trust was set up last year to receive donations for the needs of clubs to rebuild club rugby.
As of the time of print, the trust fund has raised around $800,000, around half of which came from the IRB. But there have been other substantial donations, including $175,000 from Dominion Breweries, and $76,105 from Japan’s Toshiba Corporation. Some of the most heart-warming contributions have arrived in brown paper bags from rugby clubs dotted throughout the rugby world. Former Crusader Scott Hamilton organised a whip-round at his Leicester Tigers club in the UK.
One of the trustees is Murray Withers, who happens to be chairman of Metro rugby. So he has a handle on what is going on at grassroots level and the problems associated with rugby and the earthquake.
The trust missed out on $400,000 raised by the March 2011 charity legends game in Brisbane. That went to the Red Cross after what Withers says was a mix-up with the Australian promoters. So the money still went to a worthy cause, just not the one Canterbury rugby people had in mind.
Clubs or schools have the ability to apply directly to the trust for funding for any earthquake-related damage or problems. Clubs in the eastern suburbs, plus Sydenham to the south, are most in need, but it is a Christchurch-wide operation. Some are in need of floodlights for training, so those funds can come out of the trust.
“There’s the physical damage, but luckily most of our clubs held insurance. Some were uninsured. We spent a fair amount of time last year fixing grounds so that rugby could be played on it,” says Withers.
The trust does work in conjunction with the Christchurch council on some club ground repairs, but as you can imagine, fixing grounds for rugby is well down the list of priorities.
“We thought it was important to get people back out on the rugby field. We’ve got to try and maintain our levels at the clubs. It doesn’t take long to lose your rugby team. All you need is to lose two of your four props,” he says. “But the clubs last year were brilliant.”
Withers admits there has not been excessive demand on funds due to most clubs having insurance.
“The biggest impact is going to be playing numbers. It’s about preserving numbers because the last thing we want to do is lose clubs.”
The trust operates quite separately from the union and franchise, and its brief is quite specifically earthquake-related, which cannot always be the case with everyday operations at headquarters.
Hamish Riach cannot wait for the weekend of March 24-26.
Neither can many tired, stressed out rugby-lovers.
Starved of big-time rugby action for over 18 months, they will be counting down to Saturday March 24, 7.35pm when the Crusaders return home to face the Cheetahs at the newly christened Christchurch Stadium, on the site of the old Rugby League Park in Addington. It is not far to the west of the CBD. The hope is that this could be the home of the Crusaders and Canterbury for the next five years. It can only hold 17,000, though this will increase for the June 16 All Blacks v Ireland test match. But Riach and his bean-counters will be hoping and praying that every one of those 17,000 tickets is sold for every game. That will help foster an atmosphere and more importantly can help pay some bills and repay some loans.
Earlier that day The Great Rugby Road Trip hits town, displaying the Webb Ellis Cup and most of New Zealand rugby’s international silverware. From 11am-3pm it will be at North Hagley Oval. On Monday March 26 it moves north, to Kaiapoi Rugby Club, from 3.30-6.30pm.
All the signs point to a galvanising weekend of some significance for Canterbury rugby fans.
In the meantime, Crusaders fans will have to swallow hard as another of their ‘home’ games is taken elsewhere – this Friday (March 9) Todd Blackadder’s men ‘host’ the Chiefs at Napier’s McLean Park. The hope was to have Christchurch Stadium ready to go by then, but despite round-the-clock work, that was not to be.
“Canterbury rugby deeply missed the Rugby World Cup,” says Riach. “But the goodwill generated seeing the All Blacks do so well has seen a lot of support for rugby returning. That road show will be a powerful symbol to say it’s back in front of its Canterbury and Christchurch faithful.”
Riach has seen first-hand the resilience of the Canterbury people and its rugby fraternity. That’s why he believes they will emerge from this annus horribilis and keep the flag flying.
“You’ve got no choice. You can’t curl up. You do what you can.”
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