Stadium damage leaves England in cup limbo

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The Independent Online

England may be waiting on the fitness of the Leicester outside-half Toby Flood ahead of this weekend's Calcutta Cup match with Scotland at Twickenham, but that is of little concern in the great scheme of things. They have a bloke by the name of Wilkinson ready and willing to reclaim the No 10 shirt, and anyway, there are bigger issues on the agenda – principally, the horribly difficult situation in the South Island of New Zealand, where they are meant to be based come World Cup time in September.

Christchurch, recently hit by a second major earthquake in a matter of months, remains, officially speaking, the host city for the 2003 champions, and is still scheduled to hold the two quarter-finals in England's half of the draw. But as the New Zealand Prime Minister, John Key, reported yesterday, the redeveloped AMI Stadium was badly damaged in the earthquake, and as there is no immediate prospect of a decision either way, the Rugby Football Union has no option but to put its tournament planning on hold.

"The biggest issue is the stadium," said Key, who confirmed significant damage to two stands and serious liquefaction effects on the playing surface – problems that would take "quite a number of months" to resolve. "If we can get a stadium that operates, we can address the issues with accommodation, bars, restaurants and the like. But we can't do that unless we have a stadium that gets a tick-off. We will have a clearer picture from an engineering perspective, and be in a better position to know whether we can get public liability insurance, within a few weeks."

Understandably, all New Zealanders are keen to see Christchurch play a role in the biggest sporting event ever hosted in the country, not least because it is among the half-dozen greatest rugby cities in the world and desperately needs the emotional lift associated with participation. But with the opening match between the All Blacks and Tonga in Auckland less than six months away, a prolonged debate about the merits of sticking by the original fixture schedule would leave those teams based in the South Island vulnerable to late changes of plan.

Yesterday, an RFU spokesman confirmed that the England camp would make a fresh recce of available facilities elsewhere if Christchurch was declared off-limits, rather than simply accept whatever accommodation and training locations the tournament organisers might reserve for them. "We can't actually do anything until any changes to the schedule are decided, but we're in daily contact with World Cup officials," he said. "We'll need to send someone out there to make sure any alternative facilities are suitable."

Martin Johnson, the England manager, yesterday called two of his recently injured first-choice forwards, the Northampton lock Courtney Lawes and the Leicester flanker Tom Croft, into camp. Neither man has featured in the Six Nations thus far, and Johnson has no need to fast-track them into his squad for the meeting with the Scots.