There is no rugby city on earth more broken than Christchurch. Lancaster Park, one of the high churches of the union game if not one of its cathedrals, was laid waste by the 2011 earthquake, as were many of the hotels, shops and restaurants that had grown up around it. Several of the arrow-straight roads heading out of town now have S-bends every few hundred yards; in deserted residential streets, impoverished householders are squatting in unsafe buildings, waiting patiently for insurance companies to pay them the money they are owed. Wherever you look, something is missing.
Yet there has been no breaking of the spirit. The 50-minute drive to Southbridge, a farming community of some 700 souls that just happens to be the corner of Canterbury province that gave the wondrous All Black outside-half Daniel Carter to the world, runs through some of the most productive union country in New Zealand, and while the effects of the disaster were felt in each and every neighbouring village – the rugby club in Leeston now doubles as a hotel, because the place where people used to stay is in pieces – there is a deep-rooted sense that continuity is the most effective antidote to adversity.
Carter has not been around much these last few months: the finest No 10 playmaker of the age wants nothing more than to drag his beaten-up body as far as next year’s World Cup in England, and to that end he took a six-month sabbatical at the start of the year. Last weekend, he decided it was time to get back to work – and took the field for Southbridge, where he had played as a kid, against Glenmark in a Canterbury Combined Country First Division play-off tie, no less.
The crowd of 2,000 was the biggest anyone could remember but the fog was so thick, few of them could swear hand on heart that the heaviest scorer in the history of Test rugby had really hit the spot with five kicks out of five. Carter himself confirmed that he could barely see the posts. “Dan told me he just stuck to his routine, hit it down the middle and hoped,” said his father Neville, who was serving behind the bar and made damned sure his son paid for his drinks.
It was Neville who erected a set of rugby posts in the front garden so that Daniel, no older than five or six at the time, could practise his marksmanship and it was he who helped coach him through the age-grade teams. But as he makes the journey from what is left of Christchurch city centre towards home, it is the earthquake and its after-effects that dominate the conversation.
“We certainly felt the tremors in Southbridge and there was local damage caused, but the rugby club – the fifth-oldest in the whole of New Zealand, I should tell you – was unaffected,” he said. “It was constructed on solid ground while a lot of other places were built on the swampland that covers so much of the area. I guess we were among the lucky ones. I’m a builder by trade but I’ve also spent 42 years as a volunteer fireman. When the earthquake struck, there were more than 2,000 emergency calls within minutes. The blokes in Christchurch told us to drive there as fast as we could, so we did.
“It was a difficult few hours and I don’t suppose I’ll ever forget the worst of it. Driving into town, there was falling masonry everywhere. Some of it did more than fall… the force sent great chunks of it flying down the street towards us. It’s a bloody sad thing to see the place now. Almost all the businesses have moved out of the centre and set up on the outskirts of the city. A lot of people are wondering whether the most badly affected areas will ever recover.”
Whatever passes for economic activity in the capital of the South Island today, it is going on well away from what is still known as the “central business district”. Apart from small platoons of construction workers in their yellow safety hats, the area is pretty much deserted. Traffic is eerily light; pedestrians are occasional at best. For the devout, a “transitional” cathedral constructed largely of cardboard was opened a little under a year ago: it stands on the site of the old St John the Baptist Church, demolished after the earthquake. For those in search of other kinds of sustenance, like a decent cup of coffee, there is a tiny tarpaulin-covered shack outside an equally modest temporary police station. The barista plays a tune on a xylophone when the drinks are ready for collection. It is terribly, terribly sad.
So when 18,000 spectators – a full house, packed to the rafters – gather together on Tuesday at the AMI Stadium, a rugby league venue next to the Addington Raceway trotting track, a tear or two will surely be shed. By taking on the Crusaders, the local Super XV side who can fairly claim to be the best non-Test team in world rugby, England are doing something tangible in support of the Canterbury Rugby Earthquake Relief Charitable Trust. “We’re happy to be here,” said Graham Rowntree, the tourists’ forward coach, yesterday. “In fact, we’re honoured to be here.”
At the Southbridge club last evening, as 50 or so locals mixed with the Rugby Football Union president, Bob Reeves, and the chairman, Bill Beaumont, over a couple of drinks and a bite to eat, Neville Carter said he was looking forward to the game. “Tickets are hard to come by,” he whispered, “but Dan told me he could get hold of a couple.”