England pay visit to Christchurch
September 7, 2011
Martin Johnson with a new England fan © Getty Images
England boss Martin Johnson has led an emotional visit to the earthquake stricken city of Christchurch.
England were scheduled to play their first two pool matches, against Argentina and Georgia, and a potential quarter-final at the recently renovated AMI Stadium. Australia were also scheduled to use Christchurch, a city that sees itself as the rugby heartbeat of New Zealand, for part of their campaign.
Christchurch's role as host city survived earthquakes on September 4 and Boxing Day last year but a 6.3 magnitude tremor on February 22 devastated the city. The disaster claimed 182 lives and caused damage estimated at $30billion (£15.5billion). City officials estimate 1,200 buildings will need to be demolished.
The AMI Stadium, formerly known as Lancaster Park, had just been given a £30million facelift but the two main stands have sunk into the ground. A decision is yet to be taken on whether the stadium needs to be demolished.
"When you see such a severe quake, it is not about rugby. It is tragic," said Johnson, as he stood on the stadium's damaged field. "When we saw what happened in February, we knew rugby wasn't top of the agenda. We just go and play somewhere else - for the people here it is home.
"This is a famous and iconic stadium and it is sad to see it in this state. We should be here playing. To see Lancaster Park, as I always think of it, in this state is really sad. It was a no-brainer for us to come up and show our support."
Johnson first visited the stadium with the Lions in 1993, when he watched from the stands as the All Blacks snatched a controversial 20-18 victory in the first Test. The England manager was also joined on today's visit by scrum coach Graham Rowntree, captain Lewis Moody, Shontayne Hape, Lee Mears, David Wilson and Alex Corbisiero.
England also visited the maternity unit at Christchurch Hospital and Woolston School. "It is great to get down here and show our support," said Moody. "I sat in the stands for the first Lions Test in 2005 - I was injured then as well - and seeing it as it is now is sad."
"It would have been great to be here. This is a fantastic opportunity to get down here and show some support for a place we would have called home at one stage."
The England management have refused to comment on reports that Sale wing Mark Cueto has been ruled out of Saturday's game against Argentina. Cueto has been struggling with a lower back problem which refers pain into his quadricep and affects his acceleration.
The Sale wing was forced off just 21 minutes into England's final warm-up international but said last week had shaken the problem. If Cueto is sidelined for the Argentina game, Johnson will turn to Delon Armitage, who made a try-scoring appearance off the bench against Ireland, or Matt Banahan.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Huw Richards assesses where Wales are after a mixed Six Nations, with front row seats still very much available for the World Cup
John Mitchell lapped up the action on 'Sensational Saturday' - but warns not to expect a repeat come Rugby World Cup time later this year
Craig Dowd warns England, Ireland and Wales they should play to their strengths rather than those of the All Blacks and the Wallabies
Tom Hamilton runs the rule over just where the six countries stand ahead of the global gathering in September