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Christchurch's rugby heroes return home today, after a 22-month absence from the city.

March 23. In Christchurch, winter is coming.

It is the time of year that is always a concern to health authorities, because with the cold weather comes an influx of patients with flu symptoms and, in a city still recovering from a natural disaster, that is doubly worrying.

Canterbury and West Coast District Health Board chief executive David Meates appeared on Christchurch's CTV this week to reassure viewers the city could cope, despite a shortage of beds and facilities due to the earthquakes.


He also warned about the dangers of depression among the city's population, especially among men aged over 65.

Meanwhile, in the city's Square, the cathedral is almost certainly going to be demolished. It is yet another blow to a place which has suffered more than its fair share of heartbreak during the past 18 months.

And yet, there are signs of recovery, grounds for optimism, as the days grow shorter and the nights longer.

Tonight the Crusaders will play their first game in Christchurch in 22 months. Their last game there was on May 14, 2010. Even better for the team and their legions of supporters in the city, they will be playing in a new stadium, which remarkably took only 100 days to build.

If nothing else, it is a symbol of what can be achieved when people work together - and that is a lifeline for some who have become embittered at watching a dysfunctional city council almost tear itself apart in the wake of the quakes.

Sport can unite and bring out the best in people, and although the stadium on the former Rugby League Park in Addington still looked like a building site during the week, this humble 17,500-seat facility has a big part to play in the city's recovery.

"The opening of the new stadium is of immense significance to this town," says Greg Newbold, professor of sociology at the University of Canterbury. Christchurch is highly provincial in its mentality and rugby is its main sport.

"We took a big hit when we missed out on the Rugby World Cup [due to earthquake damage at AMI Stadium]. For a lot of Christchurch people, the Canterbury and Crusaders teams encapsulate the whole identity of the town, so having the stadium finally open is extremely significant.

"We've been down on our knees for so long now, there have been closures and demolitions and the shaking is still ongoing - it's not like we have reached the bottom. That's why the game on Saturday will attract massive interest.

"People want to see those signs of recovery."

The stadium hasn't been embraced wholeheartedly. Talkback radio callers have complained about making the stadium a priority when people are still without homes.

Addington residents have been disturbed by heavy machinery as construction crews worked around the clock to finish it.

It is understood that some among the Crusaders administration were initially wary about committing to the project in case of a backlash.

Yet there is no doubt the majority of the population - not just the Crusaders' players and supporters - are pleased about them having somewhere to call a home after a season of travelling last year.

For the team and many others in the city it is a sign of normality in a life that has been anything but normal recently.

"There's nothing better than this," says Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder. "It just feels like home for the very first time. It's hard to describe.

"I know that we played away last season and we made every post a winner and it felt like home [at franchise partners Nelson and Timaru] but it doesn't compare to being able to play in Christchurch again.

"I just think this is going to be a great environment with a great atmosphere and the players look more relaxed and are excited about being in front of their home people.

"It's just little things, that you would once take for granted. We don't have to hop on a flight, the guys can sleep in their own beds, they can play in front of their mums and dads, they can spend time with their partners before the game. There's no place like home.

"Just the thought of playing in front of a full house. This place is going to have a new dimension and it's a really good feeling to see this place back in red and black again.

"It's a feeling that I will cherish for a long time."

Crusaders and All Blacks hooker Corey Flynn was planning to spend the morning of gameday playing with his young children Sienna and Seth, something he wasn't able to do last year as he whiled away the hours in a hotel room in Nelson, Napier or, remarkably, London, ahead of the ground-breaking Super Rugby match against the Sharks at Twickenham.

For him it's not just the fact that he gets to spend time with his family, it's more that he doesn't have to leave and feel the helplessness and guilt of knowing another big shake could happen while he was away.

"By the end of last year the wives and partners and kids of some of the boys were fair fed up with it, and understandably because while it was hard getting up and going every week it was also easy because we were staying at nice hotels and the ground wasn't shaking," says Flynn.

"We were safe, it was the families back here ... at any point there could have been a massive earthquake and we didn't know what was going to happen.

"Just for that fact alone making sure we're in town as much as possible - if worst comes to worst, we are here. It's great for peace of mind, that's for sure."

First-five Dan Carter is regarded as a laid-back character. His coolness is important when making decisions under pressure in his pivotal position.

He isn't normally one to get overly emotional but was directly affected last year when a friend of his was killed in the February earthquake.

And that could help explain why he was one of many Christchurch residents to take a rare recent opportunity to go into the city's Red Zone and see the cathedral for what will probably be the last time.

"I said my goodbyes and caught a glimpse of it before it goes. It's sad with everything that's happened here in Christchurch," says Carter.

"The sooner we get back to normality the better. Having a new stadium and the Crusaders playing here in Christchurch, it's the start of that.

"The people down here really need that. It's a distraction and something different to do. It's an exciting time for Christchurch.

"I know the Crusaders are really keen to put the performances out there as a thank you for the support we've had over the last year or so."

Perhaps appropriately, the whole of New Zealand has had an input into the construction process of the stadium.

Artificial grass and seats have come from Mt Smart Stadium; food and beverage facilities and steel from Carisbrook and Eden Park. The lights are from Carisbrook, the goalposts, turf and the big screen from AMI Stadium.

Blackadder appreciates the fact that stadiums around the nation have played their part in the $30 million operation, as well as the 18,000 man-hours put in since construction began on December 20. It has been reported that up to 500 workers have been on site every day this past week.

The changing rooms were modelled on those at Eden Park, which are roomier and more open than any others in New Zealand. It is a detail that has gone down well with the Crusaders and will be appreciated by other teams using the facility.

The Phoenix football team and Warriors league players will make use of it over the next few years as Christchurch again becomes a viable place to play top sport.

"It's great to be back here and I guess with the facilities we have too, it's outstanding," says Kieran Read, Crusaders captain in the absence of the injured Richie McCaw.

"Having an event, especially rugby here ... that's going to lift us. The stadium itself in terms of being close and [the support] in behind us. That's going to lift every player and the fans are going to love it."

Ask Read about the mood in the city, and the man who lifted his neighbourhood when leading the clean-up of the mud caused by liquefaction on the streets around his home sounds like someone impatient to get on with the future.

"People are at the stage where they're over everything that's happened and talking about it. We just want to move forward. Being back here for the first time is the first step forward for a lot of people, and I guess a bit of a release for others.

"The mood is pretty positive and it's time to get going again."

Newbold concurs: "The Crusaders and cathedral are part of the same edificial icons. You could say the building of the stadium is a bit like the phoenix rising from the ashes.'

* September 4, 2010 First earthquake, 7.1 magnitude. Widespread damage to Christchurch and surrounding area. AMI Stadium damaged.
* February 22, 2011 Second earthquake, 6.3 magnitude. Severe damage to Christchurch; 185 killed. Further damage to AMI Stadium rules it out for the season at least and means Crusaders must play every Super Rugby match away from home.
* June 13, 2011 Two earthquakes registering 5.7 and 6.3 strike Christchurch within an hour of each other.
* July 9, 2011 Crusaders lose Super Rugby final 19-13 to Reds at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane.
* November 11, 2011 Official announcement that a 17,500-seat temporary stadium will be built on the site of old Rugby League Park in Addington.
* December 20, 2011 Construction finally starts.
* March 9, 2012 Date of first scheduled match at new stadium against the Chiefs. Delayed due to stadium not being ready, so match played in Napier instead.
* March 24, 2012 First match at new stadium - against Cheetahs from South Africa.