England's rugby players had precious little thinking time yesterday, thanks to two heavy training sessions at the team base in Surrey ahead of this weekend's big Six Nations game with France, the only other unbeaten side in the tournament. Yet news of the major earthquake in Christchurch, capital of New Zealand's south island and one of the main host cities for this autumn's World Cup, left the red-rose fraternity in sombre mood.
"Our thoughts are with the people there," said Brian Smith, the attack coach. "It's far too early for us to be wondering about the implications for the World Cup. Saving lives is the important thing at the moment."
Stadium Christchurch, a redeveloped 45,000-capacity venue on the site of the famous old Lancaster Park ground, has been awarded some of the most significant fixtures in the tournament's pool stage, including two England games, the Scotland-Argentina contest and the Australia-Italy match. Two quarter-finals have also been slated for the city. There were conflicting stories about the condition of the stadium yesterday, but some reports indicated there had been a degree of structural damage.
The tournament organisers had contingency plans in place long before the first of the recent Christchurch earthquakes, in September last year. International Rugby Board officials were reluctant to go into detail yesterday – "It would be grossly insensitive to start talking about alternative arrangements while rescue efforts are continuing in the city," said one – but New Zealand rugby administrators believe the country can continue as sole hosts, even if Christchurch were declared off-limits.
Wales have made one change to their side for the Six Nations match with Italy in Rome on Saturday, recalling Stephen Jones at outside-half and moving James Hook to centre to fill the gap left by the injured Scarlets midfielder Jonathan Davies.
Meanwhile, London Irish confirmed the signing of the England centre Shontayne Hape from Bath – the naturalised New Zealander will move at the end of the season – while Wasps named Leon Holden as their interim director of rugby following last week's sacking of Tony Hanks. Holden was assistant coach with the club between 2005 and 2009, during which time they won European and Premiership titles.