Christchurch’s unpopular stadium is breathing again for the All Blacks Test

The unloved Orangetheory Stadium creaks back into service on Saturday, with All Blacks veteran Sam Whitelock delivering a heartfelt reminder of why Test rugby should be played in Christchurch.

After a six-year hiatus, fans in the city can fix their Rugby Championship when New Zealand hosts Argentina.

But many choose not to bother.

Despite a capacity of just 20,000, including 3,000 temporary seats, the stadium still wasn’t sold out on Friday as locals watched the weather and pondered the possibility of watching from the warmth of their homes.

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Asked this week about the stadium’s redeeming qualities, Christchurch-based All Blacks defender David Havili replied: “The cold, the wet, it’s perfect for us.”

Notorious for its exposed location and immature infrastructure, the redeveloped former Agricultural Showground was intended to be a temporary solution when Christchurch’s deadly earthquake in 2011 destroyed centuries-old Lancaster Park, one of New Zealand’s rugby sanctuaries.

Damaged Lancaster parking lot.
Former England manager Martin Johnson inspects earthquake damage at Lancaster Park field in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2011. Image: Martin Hunter/Getty Images

Disputes over costs have repeatedly delayed the construction of a new stadium in its place, with the most recent decision being a reduced-capacity covered structure that cost almost NZ$700 million (US$434 million).

The completion date is 2026, so the city, which is New Zealand rugby’s undisputed power base, is unlikely to host many more games before then one of the biggest sporting teams in the world is involved.

Lock Whitelock has only played three of his 136 games for New Zealand at the venue, but he asked authorities not to scrap his city entirely from the schedule.

The earthquake, which killed 185 people and forced them to move stadiums, was the reason Christchurch should continue to host Test rugby, he said, even if it doesn’t make financial sense or offers the most glamorous setting.

Lancaster Park
Where Lancaster Park once stood. Image: Kai Schwörer / Getty Images

“I saw what the whole community was going through, not just here in Christchurch but across the greater area,” Whitelock said.

“Whether they were a five-year-old child waiting for their parents to pick them up from daycare after a series of different earthquakes and tremors. Whether they were an elderly person who was being stressed out in this way.

“It’s still great to have Test rugby here in Christchurch and it’s important.”