AUCKLAND, New Zealand, September 9 – After six years of preparation the Rugby World Cup was set to burst into life on Friday amid a nationwide party and with the favourite All Blacks looking to axe the demons of tournaments past.
“We are ready,” proclaimed tournament chief executive Martin Snedden as the world’s top 20 teams prepared to start the seventh battle for the Webb Ellis Cup.
It is the largest event held in New Zealand and the country was alive with a party atmosphere with streets and houses decorated in team colours, cars plastered with national flags and bars and cafes packed.
Everywhere was a polyglot of sound as an estimated 95,000 people from around the world arrived to follow their teams through the 48-match festival spread over 13 cities culminating with the final in Auckland on October 23.
“This is it now, this is the real thing. The whole world is here. It is where you want to be,” said England manager and victorious 2003 captain Martin Johnson.
International Rugby Board chairman Bernard Lapasset has promised “an exceptional tournament” when Irish referee George Clancy signals the start of the opening game between the All Blacks and Tonga.
All Blacks legend Jonah Lomu, who is of Tongan descent, is tipped to play a starring role at the opening ceremony before a packed crowd of 60,000 capping nationwide preparations since 2005 when New Zealand won the hosting rights.
Behind the festivity there was no denying the focus was on the pressure facing the All Blacks playing on home soil and plagued by a history of World Cup flops.
Their trophy cabinet is packed with silverware from successful Bledisloe Cup, Tri-Nations and other campaigns at home and abroad but it has not seen the prize that trumps them all — the Webb Ellis Cup — since 1987.
The All Blacks play Tonga at Auckland’s Eden Park, returning the tournament to the ground where it had its low-key founding in the amateur era 24-years ago with the All Blacks playing Italy in the opening match in a half-full stadium.
They beat France in that final and have continued to dominate world rankings since but without ever regaining the trophy that symbolises total supremacy in world rugby.
“The World Cup is the biggest stage and you want to prove yourself on that,” said skipper Richie McCaw, reflecting on the heartache of repeated failures.
“I’ve been involved in two where we didn’t achieve what we were after and the shock is in the back of your mind.”
France also launch their campaign in Auckland against Japan at North Harbour stadium in the first of four matches to be played on Saturday.
Six Nations champions England play Argentina in Dunedin, Scotland face Romania in the southernmost city of Invercargill while Fiji are against Namibia at Rotorua in the central North Island.
On Sunday, defending champions South Africa play Wales in Wellington, Australia are up against Italy at North Harbour and Ireland have an emotionally-charged encounter against the United States in New Plymouth on the 10th anniversary of the September 11 tragedy.
While 60,000 people will pack Eden Park for a promised spectacular opening ceremony another 50,000 were expected for celebrations on Auckland’s waterfront at what has been billed the World Cup “Party Central”.
New Zealand was looking forward to the celebrations after a year of tragedy when deadly earthquakes shattered the second largest city Christchurch and 29 people were killed in a mining disaster.
Seven matches were removed from Christchurch after the February earthquakes in which nearly 200 people died and the IRB is backing an appeal, heading by McCaw, to raise funds to rebuild rugby infrastructure in the city.
Teams will also show their solidarity with Christchurch, a New Zealand rugby stronghold and home of the Canterbury Crusaders, with the All Blacks spending five days training there while England and Australia will also visit.
Minor earthquakes continue to rumble under the city daily but seismologists do not expect any significant event during the World Cup.