WELLINGTON, February 23 – New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said Wednesday he wanted Rugby World Cup games to proceed as planned in Christchurch later this year, despite an earthquake that killed at least 75 people.
The ability of New Zealand’s second largest city to host seven games, including two quarter-finals, during rugby’s showcase tournament has been thrown into doubt after Tuesday’s 6.3-magnitude quake.
Key said there had been no formal discussions on shifting games from Christchurch but he believed holding them there would be a powerful symbol of the city’s resilience after two major earthquakes in the past six months.
"If we can host the Rugby World Cup as we intended to in Christchurch, I’d like to do that," Key told reporters.
"It’s some way into the future. It’s a very important city in New Zealand and it would be a demonstration that Christchurch is back up on its feet."
Christchurch’s AMI stadium, which will be boosted to 45,000 seats for the tournament beginning on September 10, suffered only minor damage when a 7.0-magnitude quake hit the city last September.
Tuesday’s tremor, though lower in magnitude, has caused more damage in the South Island city because its epicentre was shallower and closer to the city centre.
Stadium operator Vbase said it was too early to assess whether the stadium had been weakened structurally as all efforts in the city were focused on the human toll of the disaster.
"It’s not a priority, we’re focused on people at the moment, we don’t really have any interest at all in the stadium and whether it can continue to host matches at the Rugby World Cup," Vbase chief executive Bryan Pearson told AFP.
Rugby World Cup organisers in New Zealand said it would be premature to discuss the quake’s impact on the event.
"At this time RWC 2011 must take a back seat while Christchurch deals with the aftermath of this tragedy," a tournament spokesman said.
"Our thoughts are very much with the people of the region. It is too early to talk about any implications for the tournament and any assessment must wait while the rescue and recovery efforts take priority."
The International Rugby Board has set up a crisis unit to monitor the situation, according to French Rugby Federation president Pierre Camou.
"I do not think that the World Cup is in any danger. For the moment, the tremors are localised. I think that if it comes down to it New Zealand will have fallback positions in place," Camou said Tuesday.
"But for the moment for us and for world rugby, what matters is helping anyone still trapped underneath the rubble."