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Crisis management February’s earthquake in Christchurch forced Rugby World Cup officials to take the heartwrenching decision to move seven games to other venues. However, the city and its people will remain an important element of the tournament. By Tom Love

On 22nd February 2011 a magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck ten kilometres south-east of the centre of Christchurch in New Zealand’s South Island. Despite being used to the destructive power of localised seismic activity, understandably the resolve of the people of New Zealand’s second most populous city was badly shaken. The country’s prime minister, John Key, was quick to act in declaring a state of emergency. The earthquake was the second-deadliest natural disaster in the country’s history: 182 people lost their lives; the 130-yearold Christchurch Cathedral, literally and figuratively at the heart of the city, was badly damaged; and immediately the city’s capacity to stage Rugby World Cup games later in the year, from a logistical and operational perspective, was called into question. “Everybody’s concern from the beginning was Christchurch,” says Shane Harmon, RNZ 2011’s general manager of marketing and communications, reflecting on the disaster that shook the tiny island nation. A hotbed of rugby in the region and home of the Canterbury Crusaders, the most successful team in Super Rugby history, Christchurch’s 38,628 capacity AMI Stadium had been scheduled to stage seven matches in total during the tournament – five group games and two quarter-finals – in addition to serving as a base of operations for a number of touring Rugby World Cup teams. However, while a two-week assessment of the stadium by engineers and tournament officials concluded that structural damage to the stadium was both superficial and repairable, venue operators Vbase reported that the stadium, located just outside the badly affected central business district, was limited operationally owing to “substantial damage to the surrounding streets.”

The upshot of that was that the New Zealand government, the New Zealand Rugby Union and Rugby World Cup Limited were forced to make the difficult decision of withdrawing Christchurch’s host venue status. “It’s probably unprecedented from a major events perspective,” says Harmon. “We looked back to see what other major events have had such an impact and the closest comparison we could find was the Fifa World Cup in 1986 where they had a major earthquake about a year in advance, in Mexico City.”

“It was an incredibly difficult decision to take but it was the right decision to take. In retrospect it’s become even clearer.” Faced with the prospect of moving games, tournament organisers were keen that as many of Christchurch’s matches as possible remained on the South Island. The three existing venues there, Dunedin, Nelson and Invercargill, each gained another match, while on the North Island Wellington and North Harbour did the same. Auckland’s Eden Park will be the host for Christchurch’s two quarter-finals. “It was quite a difficult process because this was all happening less than six months before the tournament takes place,” Harmon says. “We essentially went through a similar process to what we went through two and a half years ago when we were originally allocating the venues and developing the match schedule.” Rugby World Cup tournament director Kit McConnell adds of the decision to relocate matches away from Christchurch: “It was

an incredibly difficult decision to take but it was the right decision to take. In retrospect it’s become even clearer that it was the right decision to take at the time. It tested and proved the partnerships that had developed between ourselves, the government, the NZRU and the organising committee in terms of working through the process of getting clear information from the right people on the right subject to allow us to make a decision. There are contingency plans in place to deal with any number of issues that may arise around the tournament but when something that big happens, even with all the planning in the world, there are still elements that you can’t foresee and ones you have to work through. To do that, you have to rely on relationships and communication.” As well as being presented with the huge logistical challenge of relocating seven matches, thousands of visiting tourists, and several teams - all of which in turn had to rearrange both accommodation and transport – the local organising committee (LOC) also faced the daunting prospect of having to refund NZ$20 million in tickets, a particularly unenviable task considering that ticketing represents the sole source of revenue for the Rugby World Cup LOC. “That set us back by about eight or nine months in terms of our marketing,” Harmon explains. “PreChristchurch we were at NZ$189 million in revenue, so about 70 per cent of the way towards our target. We’ve still got a bit of a way to making up that shortfall of those Christchurch matches, which essentially was our second largest venue and, in Canterbury, the second largest market, but we’re being very philosophical about it,” Harmon says calmly, before adding, “Our issues pale in insignificance compared to the challenges the people of Christchurch endured and it’s

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Christchurch Cathedral, at the heart of the city, was badly damaged in an earthquake that took 182 lives. The decision to move Christchurch’s Rugby World Cup games to other cities in the aftermath of the disaster was perhaps the most difficult the tournament organisers have had to face

critical for us that we maintain a connection with Christchurch during the tournament and that they have a role too.” To that end, Harmon explains that the New Zealand government has recently allocated NZ$650,000 to ensure that the 390,000 people living within Christchurch and the surrounding urban area are fully engaged with every aspect of the tournament. “In the middle of Christchurch is Hagley Park,” explains the director of NZ 2011, Leon Grice. “It was built as sort of the answer to [London’s] Hyde Park. Nobody is allowed to build on it but what we’ve done in north Hagley Park is cleared out the festival fund to ensure that there is a place where people can celebrate. There will be rock music, places to watch the games live and a whole bunch of temporary facilities. There will also be a major festival/ fanzone and we’ve also put together a

travelling fanzone and festival to go through some of the worst-hit suburbs to on the weekends so that we can put big screen rugby up, as well as some decent bands, to make sure Rugby World Cup goes to them. Given what has happened to them it’s nothing more than a token gesture but we wanted to make sure there was a reason for them to continue to celebrate being part of the Rugby World Cup. I think the people of Christchurch will feel plenty of ownership once the tournament gets going.” All of the stakeholders in rugby union’s showcase tournament are in agreement that the disaster has brought them all – and indeed the entire nation and the global rugby community – closer together, just as all are agreed that the human tragedy of the earthquake must never be forgotten. The LOC is urging tourists and media to visit the coastal city, while the New Zealand

Rugby Union will base the All Blacks in Christchurch for part of the tournament, a brave move considering what is at stake for the team at a home World Cup. As McConnell puts it: “All of the stakeholders, teams and unions of the countries that were impacted by the disaster have been 100 per cent supportive and fantastic to work with throughout that process. They were incredibly understanding of the decisions we had to take. It was a difficult and challenging time but it was one that we dealt with. It has had an impact in terms of, for example, the movement of matches to Auckland, but it’s not one that will directly affect the delivery of the tournament. We came through it as an event and we continue to feel strongly that the people of Christchurch and Canterbury will be involved in the Rugby World Cup, without a doubt.” SportsPro Magazine | 65 64

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Crisis Management  

RUGBY UNION: February’s earthquake in Christchurch forced Rugby World Cup officials to take the heartwrenching decision to move even games...

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