Quake deals new blow to Christchurch as World Cup pulls out

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The Independent Online

In another blow to Christchurch's morale after last month's devastating earthquake, the city has been stripped of its 2011 Rugby World Cup matches because organisers fear it may not recover in time.

The rugby-mad city, in New Zealand's South Island, was due to host two quarter-finals and five pool matches, but its AMI Stadium was badly damaged by the 6.3-magnitude quake, which killed an estimated 180 people. With the stadium's operators unsure how long the repairs would take, the Rugby World Cup Minister, Murray McCully, said yesterday that the decision had reluctantly been made to move the games.

The announcement was a blow for Christchurch, which faces the prospect of having to demolish one-third of the buildings in its city centre following the quake. The Mayor, Bob Parker, said: "I just feel pretty gutted, like a lot of people in this city. We're facing a long, hard winter here in this city of ours. We were looking forward to a spring that would be brightened by having the Rugby World Cup here in our city."

The move also left the England and Australia teams looking for new bases for the World Cup, which kicks off on 9 September. The England captain, Martin Johnson, said: "We feel for the people of Christchurch, who are still suffering following the tragic earthquake. But we accept this is the right decision for the tournament and for New Zealand."

The decision was based partly on engineering reports about the quake's impact, and about remedial work required at the stadium, including structural repairs and a full replacement of the playing surface. The stadium's operators were unable to guarantee that the work would be completed in time for the games. The government and International Rugby Board (IRB) also took into account the damage to the city's infrastructure and hotels.

Mr McCully said the government had desperately wanted Christchurch to take part in the World Cup as planned, but the scale of the damage meant it was not feasible.

IRB chairman, Bernard Lapasset, said: "This is a painful decision for all parties. We have explored every option, but unfortunately there is no guarantee, with just 25 weeks until kick-off, that the stadium and key tournament infrastructure will be ready in time."

The two quarter-finals are to be moved to Auckland, which is also expected to be England's new base. No decision has been made yet on alternative venues for the pool matches, but organisers said they would try to ensure they were held in the South Island, within easy reach of Christchurch.

The quake caused an estimated NZ$15bn (£6.85bn) of damage, and the loss of the World Cup – the largest sporting event ever hosted by New Zealand – is a major economic blow to the city.

Mr Parker said: "From my heart, I will probably always find this decision hard to accept, and perhaps hard to agree with at some level."