Wellington - New Zealand Prime Minister John Key is hopeful that Rugby World Cup matches scheduled to be played in Christchurch will go ahead as planned later this year despite the deadly earthquake which shook the important South Island city.
"If we can host the Rugby World Cup as we intend to in Christchurch I would like to do that," Key told a news conference on Wednesday ahead of his return to Christchurch. "It's some way into the future (but) it's a very important city to New Zealand.
"It would be a demonstration Christchurch is back up on its feet."
A magnitude 6.3 earthquake hit the city about lunchtime on Tuesday, causing massive damage to buildings and infrastructure and killing at least 75 people.
The 26-storey Grand Chancellor Hotel, one of Christchurch's largest and due to be a major accommodation hub for visitors during the September 9-October 23 World Cup, has tilted sharply and could collapse.
Canterbury Rugby Union officials were assessing AMI Stadium, home to Super 15 powerhouse the Crusaders and proposed venue for five World Cup group matches and two quarterfinals. Local reports suggested the Crusaders might have to find a new home ground due to damage to the playing surface.
Key said Rugby World Cup minister Murray McCully would be investigating issues such as damage to hotels and infrastructure before any decision could be made regarding to the World Cup.
"One of the issues might be accommodation. There has been substantial damage to hotels," he said.
Canterbury Rugby Union chief executive Hamish Riach earlier told Television New Zealand that "right now it doesn't feel like we could host very much at all."
"We've been looking forward to (the World Cup) for five years and it's an event that promised so much for the city and the wider region and you'd certainly hope (it can host matches)," Riach said. "It's too early to say. Everyone is in the immediacy of this traumatic event and we're not quite getting our heads around that space just yet."
The second major quake to hit the city in five months, Tuesday's temblor caused more damage than the 7.1 magnitude quake outside the city in September last year.
Rugby World Cup organisers had contingency plans but would not speculate about the impact on the tournament just yet, RWC 2011 local communications manager Mike Jaspers told the New Zealand Press Association.
"Right at this moment it is too early to talk about any implications for the tournament," Jaspers said. "Right now all that has got to take a back seat while Christchurch deals with the aftermath of this tragedy.
"Our thoughts are very much with the people of the region. Any assessment must wait while rescue and recovery efforts take priority."
The International Rugby Board issued a statement saying its "thoughts and deepest sympathies" were with the people of Christchurch, also adding that it was "inappropriate to comment on the status of the World Cup infrastructure or operations."
"The focus at this point must be on the emergency response," the IRB said.
The Crusaders have been the most successful team in Super rugby, the southern hemisphere's premier provincial competition, and rugby is an important part of the social fabric of the city. They were involved in local fundraising for recovery from the September quake as recently as two weeks ago.
A Crusaders board member was killed in the quake as he worked in a downtown building, Riach told TVNZ, but declined to give any other details.
"We're feeling shell-shocked and pretty numb by that and we're trying to get our heads around that fact," he said.
Riach said the Crusaders team had been upset by the event, but he was unaware of any other loss of life in the club.
Rugby officials are considering postponing the Crusaders' Super 15 match at Wellington this weekend and shifting the club's first home game of the season against the Sydney-based Waratahs on March 4.
Crusaders Patrick McKendry said it was likely the first home game of the season would be moved.
"We're not sure at this stage but it doesn't look good," he said was quoted saying. "There's a lot of silt and water which has come up through the grass and made a real mess and it will need a lot of work."
Robbie Deans, a former All Black who had a successful tenure as a Canterbury player and coach before moving on to coach Australia, said the city of 350,000 on New Zealand's South Island was still traumatized by September's earthquake and would be hit hard by the latest disaster.
"It is a close-knit community. They've been through this already, but this is different ... this is tragic, and it's going to be tough to swallow," Deans was quoted as saying from Sydney by Australian Associated Press.
Deans, whose mother and sister live in Christchurch and survived the latest quake, said the people of Christchurch were resilient "but the reality is in this instance there has been a loss of life - you can never bring that back - it's tragic."
He said it was no time to consider the impact of the quake on the World Cup.
"It's hard to know - it doesn't warrant thinking about at the moment, it's not a priority."
Wales coach Warren Gatland, another former All Black, was relieved to learn his relatives in Christchurch were not hurt.
"We've got some family down there and we have had messages that they are OK," Gatland said. "Christchurch is a very close community, very much like Wales in terms of size and population, and a lot of Welsh people will sympathize with the devastation that has been caused in Christchurch."
South African rugby expressed its condolences and support in a letter to the New Zealand Rugby Union.
"Our rugby community feels a special bond to New Zealand and what has happened in Christchurch has been deeply felt here," SARU president Oregan Hoskins wrote.
"Please be assured that SARU and the South African rugby community will assist the NZRU and the people of New Zealand in any way that we possibly can."
Victor Matfield, captain of the Super 15 champion Bulls, said they were thinking of their Crusaders counterparts and families.
"Hopefully they are fine and their families are fine and we would like to let them know that we are here to support them if there is anything they need in this difficult time," he said. "Hopefully, it is the last of the earthquakes before the World Cup."