AUCKLAND, New Zealand, September 17- Many New Zealanders can scarcely believe they are hosting the Rugby World Cup as one of the planet’s largest sporting events prepares to kick-off in what promises to be a defining moment for the country.
An influx of about 95,000 international visitors will descend on the fomer British colony of four million for the September 9-October 23 tournament, stretching hotel accommodation in major cities to the limit.
“It seems funny, little old New Zealand holding this big event with all the world watching,” Wellington resident Kylie Goodman told AFP ahead of the tournament’s opening game in Auckland on Friday.
“I still think we’ll do a great job though.”
It is the largest event ever staged here, a nation where sheep outnumber people eight-to-one and best known in recent years for the mountain vistas that provided a backdrop to Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” movies.
The tournament comes after a horror start to the year with the Christchurch earthquake in February killing 181 people and severely damaging the main rugby stadium in New Zealand’s second largest city.
World Cup chief executive Martin Snedden has said the biggest obstacle organisers faced was the quake.
All seven matches scheduled for Christchurch, including two quarter-finals, had to be moved, although seismologists do not expect any major tremors during the six-week tournament.
New Zealand was a surprise winner over Japan and South Africa when the 2011 host nation was announced six years ago, lacking the large stadiums of its rivals and situated in a time zone unsuited to the European television market.
It is also geographically isolated — even Snedden describes the country as “stuck away at the end of the world”.
Travel any further south and you end up in Antartica, which was dramatically illustrated recently when an emperor penguin took a wrong turn in the Southern Ocean and eventually washed up on a beach near Wellington.
One attribute New Zealand has in abundance, however, is an all-pervasive passion for rugby union, which easily outranks other codes, including even football, as the nation’s most popular sport.
The national team, the All Blacks, is world rugby’s most successful side, winning 75 percent of all its Test matches — even though it has a history of underperformance at the World Cup that it will be keen to end on home soil.
When framing the winning bid, New Zealand rugby chiefs promised to use the nation’s obsession with the game to transform the country into “a stadium of four million”, providing a hothouse atmosphere for the sporting showcase.
They have stayed true to their word in allocating matches for the 20 participating teams to 12 venues around the country, including small towns such as Whangarei and Nelson, with populations of 50,000 and 60,000 respectively.
International Rugby Board (IRB) president Bernard Lapasset this week described the fervour with which New Zealanders have embraced the tournament as extraordinary and said he expected a “wonderful” World Cup.
“Those who bought tickets will not be bored,” he told AFP.
The Reserve Bank of New Zealand estimates that the influx of tourists will inject NZ$700 million (US$578 million) into the economy, which is stil largely reliant on rural exports, lifting growth by 0.33 percentage points.