'Saturday was just a game. This is real life'
WITHIN A couple of hours of their arrival the entire Ireland squad was taken through the downturn area of Christchurch now known as the Red Zone. To see it was the only way of believing the devastation caused by the earthquakes of September 2010 and especially February 2011, the latter resulting in the deaths of 185 people.
Christchurch is still very much in demolition mode and populated only by building workers in orange jackets and helmets. The bus containing the Irish squad crawled through the zone, followed by a media bus, down Colombo Street, Manchester Street and other streets that some of the squad could remember from the Lions tour of 2005.
Along the way old landmarks were pointed out. The Crowne Plaza, where the Lions stayed in the week of that first Test, is now gone. So too the Heritage, where the All Blacks stayed, but like the Holiday Inn (where most of the media stayed and where Clive Woodward held his well-known Speargate press conference on the night of the game) it will be demolished as it is not economically viable to repair it.
Other landmarks are now mere car parks, such as the Old Government Building, the Christchurch Press building, and Warren’s Pub – a popular meeting point.
The two buses stopped outside the iconic cathedral on Cathedral Square before the players disembarked. The cathedral is now a shell of its former beautiful self and a debate rages between the church, which wants it demolished, and those who want it retained.
It was an eerie, sobering and even chilling experience, as one radio reporter put it. The Irish players looked shocked but attentive during their guided tour as the two engineers who accompanied them on their bus explained in detail the events of that fateful day and what has followed.
Rob Kearney likened it to a set from a disaster movie, which was exactly how it looked. Donncha O’Callaghan remembered old meeting points, such as a cafe that is now gone, and also recalled how his Munster teammate at the time, Peter Borlase, was distraught for days afterwards as he sought information on family and friends.
For Greg Feek, Ireland’s scrum coach and ex-All Black prop who played for the Crusaders and regards New Zealand’s second most populous city as his second home, it was a particularly reflective day.
Speaking to a phalanx of television, radio and print media, Feek described the experience as humbling and emotional, and with family and friends here, said: “It’s still very sad.
“Initially the boys were alright but even just coming up the road there things started to kick in, so it was pretty tough. The boys are pretty quiet. I didn’t hear much, but to be honest I was in my own little world on the bus.”
The All Blacks, ensconced since Sunday, are playing their first Test here since the earthquake, and Feek could well understand how highly motivated they will be for Saturday’s second Test, which is now a 21,000 sell-out at the newly built ATM Stadium, which replaced the old ATM Stadium, also known as Jade Stadium and Lancaster Park.
But he also pointed out that there is a sizeable number of Irish who are now part of the demolishing/rebuilding work, some of whom were on the ground in the Red Zone and who posed with Irish players for photos.
“A lot of the Canterbury boys have already played here and clearly had a lot to play for,” he said, in reference to the Crusaders bonus point wins over the Blues and Highlanders. Hopefully it will be a very good spectacle so that everyone can enjoy themselves.
“I feel for the Canterbury people who didn’t get a game at the World Cup. Everyone felt for them so hopefully both teams can get out there and support them and get around town in the next few days and say ‘g’day’ to everyone.”
Also speaking to the assembled media, Declan Kidney admitted: “It’s a very difficult thing to put into words what you see around you here and to try and express your emotions. Fair play to the people of Christchurch that they’ve done what they’ve done to get themselves up and going again.
“We’re absolutely delighted to be here and to be the first international team in here since this,” said Kidney, for what will be Ireland’s first Test in Christchurch. “Every country goes through its different crises and you can just feel this one, can’t you? When you see the energy of everybody and what everybody has put into it, that tells you all you need to know.”
Asked if there was any nervousness within the Irish squad concerning after-shocks – one on Monday night registered 4.2 – Kidney said: “We played New Zealand last Saturday night and we’ve after-shock from that ourselves.
“But it puts that into perspective. We were obviously disappointed about last Saturday night in a rugby context but this puts it all into true context. That was just a game. This is real life.”