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In a state of stadium limbo
Sunday November 5, 2006
By Dylan Cleaver and Gregor Paul

The International Rugby Board has assured New Zealand rugby officials that the dramatic shift in stadium policy poses no threat to their 2011 World Cup hosting rights.

Only seven weeks ago New Zealand Rugby Union chairman Jock Hobbs gave an hour-long presentation to Rugby World Cup executives in Canada detailing plans to host the final at a revamped Eden Park.

Since then the Government, through the Ministry of Economic Development (MED), has investigated alternative venues and Cabinet is expected to confirm this week that it will initially commit to the concept of a stadium on Auckland's waterfront.

Speculation had risen that the IRB was edgy about the apparent delay in constructing what was promised to them in the successful bid document and again in Canada, but an IRB spokesman said the Dublin-based administration was adopting a wait-and-see approach.

"We have been well-briefed on the situation in New Zealand," said Greg Thomas, IRB communications director.

"The New Zealand Rugby Union has made a commitment to build a world-class 60,000 seat stadium and that is the obligation it has to us.

"We are aware that the Government is evaluating a number of potential sites. Where the stadium is built is a decision for them to make and we are not concerned about the process they are going through."

But while those positive assurances have been made by the IRB, concern will grow the longer this process drags on.

Various construction reports have suggested a waterfront site can't be built in time for the 2011 World Cup and Jade Stadium has been told by MED officials that it is a possible contingency venue.

Jade chief executive Bryan Pearson told the Herald on Sunday he has had a face-to-face meeting with MED officials and has guaranteed them the Christchurch venue would be able to "step up to the plate" if the waterfront option fell through.

The IRB, however, is unlikely to be supportive of the waterfront option if it comes with doubts over completion times. The sport's administrators can't afford any gambling with their showpiece event and the prospect of holding a final in Christchurch, which has acknowledged infrastructure issues, might see them consider shifting the hosting rights.

Both Japan and South Africa made credible bids to host the 2011 World Cup, and Australia has proved they can host major events at short notice.

It is understood MED is giving contractors until April next year to prove a the necessary stadium can be built on time.

With that sort of lead-in time Pearson said Jade Stadium, with redevelopment plans already in place, could provide a world-class venue using minimal temporary seating.

The NZRU did not want to comment on possible contingency plans, but did indicate there was more than one back-up option. Its preferred city to host the final is Auckland given its infrastructure and resources, and even with a waterfront stadium under construction, Eden Park will remain operational to host rugby tests and cricket internationals to at least 2011 and possibly beyond.

The original World Cup bid document proposed the final be played at Eden Park with temporary seating taking the capacity up to 55,000, and that option will remain live should the waterfront fail to hit deadline.

North Harbour Stadium has also positioned itself as a serious alternative if needed.

"If it transpires that the Government has April 2007 as a cut-off point for the waterfront, then in terms of North Harbour delivering a national stadium by 2010 we can do that comfortably," North Harbour stadium chief executive Brendon O'Connor said.

If it is not the national stadium, North Harbour would forge ahead with its plans for a sport and community leisure precinct with a smaller capacity stadium.

Jade is already committed to re-building the eastern stand, boosting capacity to 43,000 to make it a potential World Cup semifinal host.

Temporary seating could be used to take the capacity up to 55,000 if required but there are other problems with Christchurch. Serious questions are being asked about the South Island city's ability to cope with the influx of people and the potential for bone-chilling temperatures were it held in June-July window (a decision will be made on the dates next week).

The fact Jade Stadium is in the frame has left Auckland Rugby chief executive Andy Dalton bemused by MED's lack of consultation on the waterfront issue.

As a co-beneficiary of Eden Park under the Eden Park Trust Board Act, Auckland Rugby gets virtually free use of the ground.

"There would have to be some very compelling reasons for us to move from here obviously.

"I mean, number one, we want to make sure we've got a stadium for Rugby World Cup 2011 and at this stage the only live option that I'm aware of is Eden Park. It's the only one that's doable at a relatively reasonable cost," Dalton said.

"We've offered to meet with the MED and they've suggested it's conceptual and we'd be getting into too much detail at this stage to meet with a potential primary tenant.

"We're a little, I supposed, bemused by that but that's obviously the way they've decided to take it."