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N. Zealand ready for Rugby World Cup

WELLINGTON, New Zealand, August 7 – With a month to go until the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, stadium construction is complete, tills are ringing to the sale of All Blacks jerseys and fevered speculation abounds about team selections.

The country is ready to host the largest event it has ever staged, says tournament organiser Martin Snedden, despite fierce challenges thrown up by February’s deadly Christchurch earthquake and the faltering global economy.

“We’re feeling very well prepared,” declared Snedden, chief executive of Rugby World Cup 2011, adding that he had detected an increase in the buzz surrounding the tournament as the opening match on September 9 draws closer.

One of the few countries where rugby union is the dominant sport, New Zealand has a lot riding on the showcase event, not least the chance for the All Blacks to atone for a history of under-performance at the World Cup.

It also gives the nation, which has a population of just over four million, the chance to prove that a small country can successfully host large sporting events and accommodate tens of thousands of international visitors.

“Rugby World Cup is the biggest event New Zealand’s ever held and it’s important to New Zealand because it’s our number-one game and everyone within New Zealand knows rugby,” former All Blacks captain Buck Shelford said.

Snedden said that despite New Zealand’s geographic isolation and the turmoil hitting the world economy, organisers remained optimistic about projections that 85,000 international visitors would flood in.

“One of our biggest challenges is that New Zealand is stuck away at the end of the world with really only Australia as our closest neighbour and a long way away from some of the international rugby markets that we’ve been targeting,” he said.

“But we’ve been absolutely delighted with the number of people who have committed to coming to New Zealand.”

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The earthquake that hit the country’s second largest city in February, killing 181 people, had thrown up the biggest obstacle, he said.

All seven matches scheduled for Christchurch, including two quarter-finals, had to be moved after the devastating quake rendered its stadium impossible to play in and shattered the city’s infrastructure.

“We’re just hoping that the people of Christchurch still manage to find a way of connecting in with this tournament strongly,” Snedden said.

Revenue from ticket sales — which topped one million last month — is expected to reach NZ$268 million ($223 million), although the tournament will make a loss, to be shared by the government and New Zealand Rugby Union.

The country’s struggling economy however is expected to get a much-needed boost.

The Reserve Bank of New Zealand estimates that the influx of tourists will inject NZ$700 million into the economy, lifting growth by 0.33 percentage points.

On the field, the tournament — which sees 20 teams competing — offers a chance of redemption for New Zealand’s All Blacks, widely regarded as the best rugby team on the planet.

The side has failed to live up to the billing since winning the inaugural World Cup in 1987, unable to lift the trophy in five subsequent tournaments and earning an unwanted reputation for choking on the big occasion.

All Black legend Jonah Lomu, part of the New Zealand side that lost to South Africa in the 1995 final, said he believed 2011 might be the All Blacks’ year because they are playing on home soil in front of fans desperate for success.

“If the All Blacks do do it, mate, I’ll be the happiest man on the moon,” he said.

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Snedden warned that New Zealanders must maintain their enthusiasm for the event even if the unthinkable happens and the All Blacks fail again.

“If we don’t happen to win the World Cup, we’ll get another chance in four years’ time, and four years after that. But we’re not going to get another chance to host the event,” he said.

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