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It’s time to play on

For all that is great and good about sport, for all its benefits to society, its ability to entertain, thrill, captivate and motivate, there’s no escaping the feeling of pointlessness and futility that descends when real life crashes down.

The ripples from the carnage in Christchurch travelled far, wide and quickly through the sporting world, rendering trivial events that would otherwise have carried great import.

The impact was felt as far away as Wales, where a debate had raged about whether the roof of Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium should remain open or be closed for the country’s decisive Six Nations match against Ireland.

Despite a colossal in-bound storm, the Irish had insisted the roof remain open, perceiving that they’d have an advantage in the wet – the near 100,000 spectators who’d have to suffer through the inclement weather be damned.

What is the point in having a roofed stadium if you weren’t going to use it, many wondered?

The debate was strident. Then news from the other side of the world dropped with a dispiriting thud.

“It hardly seems important now,” was the sentiment filtering through my twitter feed from the principalities. Massacres have that effect. And, for the rugby global community, whatever the geography, Christchurch felt mighty close to home.

Meanwhile, in New Zealand, sports administrators were forced into a grim calculus – to play on in the face of horror and an increased terror threat level, or cancel?

The cricket test in Christchurch was pulled swiftly and without much need for thought, given the frightening proximity of the Bangladesh team to the Masjid Al Noor mosque during the massacre.

In Hamilton, the Friday night match between the Chiefs and Hurricanes proceeded. That was before – and as - the full horror of events in Christchurch came to light. By Saturday morning, it was evident there was no way a match between the Crusaders and Highlanders – teams from the cities where the atrocity occurred and where the perpetrator had resided – could go ahead.

In Auckland, the Warriors pushed ahead with their NRL opener, playing with heavy hearts but light heels to post a thumping victory over the Bulldogs.

There is no set answer to when is the right time to resume competition when tragedy strikes. ‘When it feels right’ is about the best we can do.

It wasn’t just professional sport affected by Christchurch. A karate tournament this column attended in Pukekohe on Saturday afternoon went ahead despite a large number of withdrawals by competitors directly affected by the senseless slaughter.

Junior cricket players in Counties Manukau observed a minute’s silence prior to matches. For me – as a coach – that meant trying to explain to a group of 11-year-olds why it was important to play on in the face of such barbarism, while still trying to process the rationale myself.

The reason we were playing, I offered, was that the evil people who do bad things like the Christchurch gunman did so because they wanted to us change. And if we changed the way we lived, we would be letting them win.

Meanwhile, others were arguing that New Zealand must change, for it was the status quo that had led to the bloodshed in Christchurch.

There’s no reason both of those sentiments can’t be correct.

But sport, ultimately, must go on. As I told my team, sports such as cricket teach us that it doesn’t matter where we come from or what we believe, humans will always have more in common with each other than we have differences.

Sadly, Friday wasn’t the first time terror has impacted on a cricket team I have been involved in. On July 7, 2005, suicide bombers killed 52 people in coordinated attacks on London.

Three of the bombers came from Leeds, where I lived and played for a local cricket club. Our club consisted of Christians, Jews, Muslims and at least one atheist. We had Englishmen, Pakistanis, Kiwis, Aussies and even a Polish bloke. Race or religion was never an issue.

Then came the Thursday morning of 7/7/2005 – an attack that matched Christchurch if only for the horrific death toll. The victims were all British nationals, but hailed from 17 different nations.

Britain was appalled. At our club, two Muslim brothers were the most affected by the tragedy. If it wasn’t enough that seemingly normal people from their neighbourhood had done something horrendous in the name of their faith, they also had to contemplate the very real possibility they might be targeted in revenge attacks.

“My mother has asked us not to go outside,” one of the brothers told me at training.

The fact that that was probably sound advice was just bloody awful.

Our team, however, remained tight. We celebrated each other’s successes, commiserated over failures and gloried in the simple fact that we were able to spend a good chunk of our lives mucking around on a field together.

Sport has the power to unify. And to heal. It’s crucial that, as soon as possible, the games go on.

It’s not about seeking a distraction or a means to forget, but rather celebrating something in life that is typically a force for good.

At Newsroom, our sports staff have pondered – much like the country’s sports executives – when is the right time to resume our coverage. When will it be appropriate to present readers with uplifting stories about great Kiwis doing great things? When will a sports story not seem banal, trite or, worse, utterly insensitive?

My feeling is that we’ve reached that point. That view came to me when I read some NRL power rankings out of Australia that had the Warriors listed “unchanged” in 12th, despite perhaps the finest opening round display in the club’s 25-year-history.

That bothered me. Which meant I cared about something that 24 hours earlier would have seemed utterly ridiculous.

That’s good. It’s important to go back to caring about things that aren’t life or death; things that don’t really matter beyond the importance we choose to grant them for our own enjoyment. Because these are the things that help banish grief, and make sadness bearable.

It’s time to go back to caring about the things that draw us together, or else all we are left with is the things that would drive us apart.

# The Wales v Ireland match was played with the roof open. Wales defeated Ireland 25-7. In the rain.

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