The long road back (part 1)

The long road back (part 1)

DATELINE: SATURDAY February 11, 2012.

Stevens Street in Christchurch, just south-east of the CBD, on which stands AMI Stadium, once Lancaster Park, the spiritual home of Canterbury and Crusaders rugby. There is an eerie silence on this balmy day. The street is deserted. Dust blows. Walk around the stadium and you see the unmistakeable signs of what was once putrid liquefaction. That word has entered the lexicon and it is the bane of Christchurch daily life. The sound of a chat on the mobile phone echoes off the Paul Kelly and Hadlee stands.

A year ago this place was gearing up to host another bumper Crusaders season, a full ITM Cup programme, and no less than seven Rugby World Cup games. Then the earthquake struck, changing everything.

The last time this writer was here was on August 7, 2010. It was Bledisloe Cup night and the place was full of life, bustling with the anticipation of the 48th All Blacks test match since 1913 at this venue. AMI Stadium had recently been revamped.

Now it stands empty, lifeless, padlocked. Its future is due to be decided later this month, but it is a metaphor for much of life and rugby in Christchurch – uncertainty. The rugby people have lost their 40,000 seat stadium, but they have also lost the focal point of their game. The Canterbury union and franchise have lost their principal revenue earner. The ground itself did not always generate an intense atmosphere, especially if it was well under half-full, but it generated plenty of nostalgia, and some champion teams graced its turf.

The promotional campaign used for Canterbury’s ITM Cup side in 2011 was centred around one word: UNSHAKEABLE. It was an apt description as Rob Penney’s young men went on to lift a fourth consecutive provincial crown. All its home games – including Ranfurly Shield games – were played during the day at Rugby Park. Those who went along enjoyed the sunshine and running rugby. But the games were “commercially a disaster”, according to Crusaders and Canterbury chief executive Hamish Riach. The crowds just did not flock, though this was not unique to Canterbury in a trying season for provincial rugby due to the compressed nature of the competition in a World Cup year. Of course one cannot take these sparse crowds for a sign that Canterbury people did not care about their team, just that they had other priorities on a Saturday afternoon, such as finding a new place to live or just getting from A to B.

Those who have not driven around Christchurch since 2010 will notice it immediately. The traffic is now akin to Auckland in most places surrounding the no-go CBD. In the eastern suburbs you will need patience and a keen sense of direction. Roads are locked down, roadworks are omnipresent. Lifestyles have changed of necessity as people make the most of what they have. They are just getting on.

There are two strands of thought when it comes to the place of rugby in the new order: 1. It acts as a de-stresser after a hard week of making ends meet or making the most of a bad situation or 2. It just does not rate as important any more in the greater scheme of things. Some are busy working or existing instead of training and playing. Providing for one’s family is key and some have just had to put the game on the backburner.

One can understand their angst. But many see rugby as very much the first option, a vital part in the slow return to normality.

Rugby News spoke with several key people in the Canterbury game, and to a host of clubs, to form an overall picture of the state of the game a year on.

The man in the hot seat

Hamish Riach can probably sympathise with Christchurch mayor Bob Parker.

The Crusaders and CRFU chief executive is not in the gun to the same extent as the articulate but embattled Parker, but knows he needs to keep both franchise and union in good heart, financially and in every rugby sense. All this with a smaller, new stadium and a loss of nearly $700,000 for the franchise’s flagship team which reached the final of Super Rugby 2011 despite racking up over 100,000km in air points.

He recalls well the moment when the earthquake hit: he was going through the salary cap audit, and ended up under the desk, along with paper, dust and debris.

But Riach is taking the glass half-full approach as everyone rides the tough times.

“Playing numbers were about seven percent down, referees and coaches are about nine percent down, so our big work-on is to get those numbers back up to pre-earthquake levels this year.

“But the game itself has come through in reasonable heart. There’s been some wonderful men and women do special things, especially in the community game, in terms of getting kids to games, having alternative training fields, getting liquefaction off and re-sowing fields.

“We also saw the power of sport and in our case rugby. A lot of people left Christchurch immediately after the earthquake, and there were anecdotal stories of teams, two weeks before the season, having only 10 at training but then getting 30 in the week before the season started. Rugby was providing a reason for people to come back to Christchurch to commit to their team because it was a bright part of a black picture,” says Riach.

He says there is real excitement in the region as the 2012 season swings into gear.

“We should get the stadium up for the professional side, the All Blacks won the Rugby World Cup, Canterbury won its fourth title in a row, and the Crusaders want to go one better. So there’s a lot of anticipation flowing through the game from the kids to the professionals.”

While Canterbury receives the lion’s share of the press in terms of impact on the game, Riach and his team also work with the sub-unions. He says North Canterbury is a “work in progress” after damage and fallout from the September 2010 earthquake while Ellesmere is “going gangbusters”.

The Canterbury union had to step in and loan some money to the Crusaders last year. That is now paid back. And while it may seem strange that a union is having to bail out a franchise, it is fortunate that the union had solid reserves to fall back on, unlike the Crusaders.

“Crusaders’ surpluses are distributed. There’s nothing to fall back on, so that’s where the Canterbury union and the NZRU stepped in to help.

“The NZRU propped up the Crusaders with a big loan. Their support went way beyond just loaning money though. I can’t speak highly enough of them, both in terms of direct support for me and the board, helping with difficult decisions and operational issues. They were there for us in our hour of need,” says Riach.

That is not insignificant when you consider the NZRU has cashflow problems of its own, posting a loss of nearly $10 million last year.

While Riach says the goal is to repair the game and its resources, he admits the model “depends so much on having a stadium”.

Rugby Park is still used for rep training and did its bit in hosting 2011 ITM Cup games but its small capacity and facilities, including barely adequate lighting, means it is not a sustainable long-term option for the Crusaders or Canterbury.

The future of AMI Stadium is looking grim, though Riach believes it is “technically repairable”. However, costs and insurance may be insurmountable hurdles.

So most of the eggs are in the Christchurch Stadium, formerly known as Rugby League Park, basket.

At least the union staff has not been decimated, unlike at other unions. Otago is on the verge of going into liquidation after revealing it has no way of paying debt of $ 2.35 million.

“No, we’ve very much tried to keep the group together. We think the earthquake was a specific, unique event that shouldn’t dictate sizing and structure,” says Riach, adding that if the new stadium works out, then he can continue with all his valued staff.

“It’s unlike any other disaster you can confront, because a flood finishes and a fire gets put out, but the earthquake is on-going, with 10,000 aftershocks and uncertainty, that’s unsettled all of us in our personal and work lives.”

The Crusaders

One of the enduring images of 2011 was the sight of Kieran Read, wheelbarrow in hand, helping shovel liquefaction in Christchurch.

The Crusaders had just finished training at Rugby Park when the earthquake struck on February 22, 2011, at 12.51pm. Instantaneously, their season, which was one game old, was turned on its head. We know they had to travel for every game – home matches were held in Nelson and Timaru, while they even went to Twickenham to play the Sharks and help raise funds.

Tom Taylor was not a Crusader in 2011, but has heard most of the tales from the team. He’s a Crusader in 2012, and counts himself lucky his family home in Harewood, north-west of the city, is out of harm’s way. One of the rookies in the squad this season, he can feel the vibe coming out of those who went through the wringer last season.

“They had a really tough year, but you can tell there’s a bit of a buzz back, playing at home. It’s great to have a home base and not to have to travel all the time. I wasn’t part of the team last year but I know a lot of the boys found it really hard,” he says.

Some are now immune or at least inured to the aftershocks, which have broken sleep or raised heart-rates since the big one.

Not so for Taylor: “I wouldn’t say immune. Some are a bit frightening at times, but it’s just part of being in Christchurch at the moment. The aftershocks are getting less and less. You just have to deal with it and focus on other things.”

Easier said than done for many.

The Crusaders themselves are a visible and active presence in Christchurch, doing their bit to press the flesh and help out at public events. They know their charge to the 2011 Super Rugby final was a source of great pride back home, even as life was abnormal for many.

North Canterbury

The good rugby folk in North Canterbury have dealt with earthquake-related issues for longer than the metro rugby people. Kaiapoi Rugby Club, in particular, has been in the thick of it since the September 4, 2010 quake.

Patron Rick Moore is well known throughout the sub-union. He has got personal and rugby worries. His house is in a red zone, but, like many others, life is a waiting game at the moment. Loss of players to struggling town clubs grates him. Kaiapoi has seen a handful of senior players depart this season, and at least one of them has travelled south to play for a metro club.

While some of the speed limits in Kaiapoi are restricted to just 30kmph, the grounds at the club and high schools have emerged largely intact. There was slight damage to the rugby clubrooms, but because it was a solid building surrounded by open space, it was used by civil defence in the immediate aftermath of the quake, fulfilling an important community service.

“It worked out unbelievably well. People poured in for water and other stuff that was needed. It brought you down to earth seeing people asking for things who had never had to ask for anything before,” says Moore. At all times for two months there was someone at the Kaiapoi Rugby Club to help those in need.

So life is manageable in Kaiapoi. But the trickledown effect is felt through the North Canterbury rugby zone. Glenmark and Saracens are said to have lost players to the bigger, stronger city clubs. The sub-union is not in a position to prop up clubs and ensure overall strength, not in what is essentially an amateur competition. There is the travel factor to consider too. Combined competitions with Ellesmere and Mid Canterbury make for some long hauls, and some just cannot commit to eight hours away from home and possible employment on a Saturday.

Moore says there is an enthusiastic new committee in place at his Kaiapoi club. But, he adds, they need support. Everyone needs support in these trying times.

Next week: we find out how the clubs in Canterbury are coping with the fallout from the earthquake.

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