Auckland: Many New Zealanders can scarcely believe they are hosting the Rugby World Cup, one of the planet’s largest sporting events, which will see an influx of around 95,000 international visitors to the former British colony of four million. The tournament, from 9 September-23 October, will stretch 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 said 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 8:1 and which has been best known in recent years for the mountain vistas that provided a backdrop for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies.
Match-ready: The Otago Stadium in Dunedin is scheduled to host at least four matches during the six-week tournament. Photo by Paul Ellis/AFP.
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 organizers faced was the earthquake.
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. It lacked the large stadiums of its rivals and is 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”.
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.
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 added.
The Reserve Bank of New Zealand estimates that the influx of tourists will inject NZ$700 million (around Rs 2,667 crore) into the economy, which is still largely reliant on rural exports, lifting growth by 0.33 percentage points.
Local interest also stems from the fact that the national team, the All Blacks, is world rugby’s most successful side, winning 75% 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.
The All Blacks’ 24-year quest to regain the Rugby World Cup begins against Tonga on Friday, with coach Graham Henry scouring the history books to resolve why past campaigns ended in misery.
Lesson 1—the former schoolmaster learnt that his top-ranked All Blacks cannot take any side lightly, leading to intrigue about the wholesale changes he has made for the Pool A match which will open the seventh World Cup.
Henry vowed the failed rotation policy of old is out, but nine players have disappeared from the side, believed to be his best available, that was beaten by Australia two weeks ago.
Tonga, with their bruising approach, have a reputation for causing upsets but lack the skills to be considered serious challengers and have not faced a top-tier nation since the last World Cup. However, the All Blacks will still need to produce a commanding performance in Auckland to appease a country which regards itself as the spiritual home of rugby.
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