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Dublin: 15 °C Thursday 27 June, 2019
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Letter from New Zealand: Scarred by the quake, but Christchurch stands proud

The Lions are in town to take on one of the best club sides in world rugby.

Murray Kinsella reports from Christchurch

MORE THAN SIX years on, there are signs of the damage the earthquake caused everywhere.

Empty plots of lands where buildings should stand, a closed-off and scarred Cathedral, rebuilding projects still in the early stages, 185 empty white chairs on the corner of Madras and Cashel Streets – each of them representing one of the lives lost when the magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck Christchurch in February of 2011.

Lancaster Park Lions Rugby Photo Gallery Lancaster Park will be demolished this year. Source: Mark Baker

While there is much more to this part of New Zealand and this city than the dark memories, it’s impossible to escape the sense that things have yet to move on, and understandably so.

The earthquake had its effect on rugby too and it is an eerie feeling to stand looking in on Lancaster Park, a venue of almost 40,000 capacity that staged the first Test of the 2005 Lions tour but has been defunct, damaged beyond repair, since the earthquake.

With the grass overgrown, the paint peeling and its seats now being sold off as memorabilia, Lancaster Park will finally be demolished later this year.

The issue of a great stadium for Christchurch has been a major one since 2011 and it remains unresolved.

AMI Stadium, where the Lions face the Crusaders tomorrow, is only a temporary solution and holds just 18,000 people. Christchurch needs something bigger and the campaign to secure funding for a fitting stadium continues. But, like many things in this city, progress has been slow.

Lancaster Park Lions Rugby Photo Gallery A view outside Lancaster Park. Source: Mark Baker

It is a true shame that the South Island will not host a Test on this Lions tour, for this is real rugby country.

Auckland may be known as a hotbed for producing New Zealand rugby talent, with the huge Polynesian population helping to drive that, but the Canterbury region has deserved pride in their contribution.

The Lions will face seven All Blacks in the Crusaders team tomorrow, while the local schools like Christchurch Boys’ High School will continue to churn out intelligent, gritty rugby players in the future.

In town for just three nights, the Lions won’t have too much time to consider it all, although captain Sam Warburton and head coach Warren Gatland did lay a wreath at the Canterbury Earthquake Memorial upon arrival from Auckland.

The flight to the South Island has brought us to a place where the pace is calmer and the air is colder.

Christchurch, with its city centre still to be truly built back up, is a spread-out and sometimes sleepy place, though the locals are passionate rugby people who will turn out in force at AMI Stadium tomorrow.

Rock solid in Christchurch. #NZ

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Street names like Caledonian Road, Caerphilly Place, Cashel Street and Cambridge Terrace will certainly have helped the Scottish, Welsh, Irish and English visitors feel more at home, and also point to the distinct European roots in Christchurch.

Among the rugby community and outside it, they still take some pride in harking back to how their ancestors were pioneers, coming into Lyttelton, the so-called ‘Gateway to Canterbury,’ on boats and settling on this land.

They feel they are resilient folk, and given what they went through in 2011, it is impossible to argue with.

This tour moves at a thrilling pace and Lions players speaking on Thursday could be forgiven for struggling to remember that the game against the Blues at Eden Park had taken place the night before, rather than last weekend or even last week.

Among the travelling media, the feeling is familiar. There is little time to pause, and Auckland seems like a distant memory already.

The Lions suffered their first defeat of the tour at Eden Park to add a little more pressure from the New Zealand media. When the ceiling at their team hotel in the city centre began to leak water at an alarming rate, it was easy to draw a line between that and the suggestions that things are already beginning to fall apart.

Auckland was a welcoming base, nonetheless, and the presence of Lions fans was obvious in most places as the touring red army begin to gather numbers.

Those taking trips on the ferries out to Devonport and Waiheke Island would have been awed by the views over the city and out into the simply stunning Hauraki Gulf. This country, we must say again, is a true slice of heaven on earth.

But Thursday morning brought us to the airport to venture south, and the number of red jerseys was impressive. Among the travellers was one particularly famous Irishman in Ronan Keating, who is touring with his son, Jack.

Keating is a big Hurricanes fan and the club are hosting him at their Super Rugby clash with the Chiefs on Friday night in Wellington.

That fixture will be an intriguing one featuring a number of the All Blacks named in Steve Hansen’s imposing 33-man squad on Thursday. If it wasn’t feeling very real for the Lions just yet, the defeat to the Blues and that All Blacks squad list will have made it so.

Sam Warburton places a wreath at the Canterbury Earthquake National Memorial in Christchurch Sam Warburton lays a wreath at the Earthquake Memorial. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Awaiting them tomorrow at AMI Stadium is one of the best club sides in the world and a ground full of proud Christchurch and Canterbury people who are eager for their part of New Zealand to show exactly what it is made of.

They will hope to send a few more shockwaves through this rollercoaster of a Lions tour.

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‘I don’t think there’s a lot of difference between the Super Rugby sides and All Blacks’

No time for Lions self-pity as they get on the road to Christchurch

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Murray Kinsella

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