The seventh Rugby World Cup got underway at Auckland’s Eden Park on Friday night with hosts New Zealand enjoying a 41-10 victory over Tonga as they began their bid to win the Webb Ellis Cup for the first time in 24 years.
Bernard Lapasset, the French chairman of the International Rugby Board (IRB) officially declared the tournament open after a glittering 30-minute ceremony celebrating the country’s Maori heritage and unrivalled rugby pedigree.
“New Zealand will be an exceptional host of the tournament which New Zealanders and rugby fans alike will be proud of,” said Lapasset, who has been head of the IRB since the last World Cup in France four years ago.
At stake for the 30-strong All Blacks squad was a glorious place in their country’s history books should they hold the golden trophy aloft at Eden Park on October 23 or, should they fail, ignominy and opprobrium.
Tens of thousands of fans, some of whom were from Australia, Europe and South Africa, thronged Auckland’s picturesque harbour waterfront, with impromptu hakas, the celebrated Pacific Islands warrior challenge, breaking out in several places.
Eden Park, refurbished and enlarged for the occasion, was packed to its 60,000 capacity as the opening ceremony started and the anticipation moved up another gear as both teams marched out on to the field to perform their own hakas.
The All Blacks v Tonga clash was the first of a 48-match festival spread over 13 cities ranging from Whangerai near the tip of the North Island to Invercargill 1,290km away on the bottom of the South Island.
England, the champions in Australia in 2003, were among the eight teams in action on Saturday taking on Argentina in Dunedin, while reigning champions South Africa had a tough opener in store on Sunday against Wales.
“It’s incredibly exciting,” New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said.
“New Zealand’s done everything it can to be prepared, there’s a really friendly atmosphere out there and people are loving what’s going on.”
“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.
All Blacks legend Jonah Lomu, who is of Tongan descent, played a starring role at the opening ceremony capping nationwide preparations that began in 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 World Cup is the biggest stage and you want to prove yourself on that,” said All Blacks 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.”
New Zealand has been 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 moved from Christchurch after the February earthquakes in which nearly 200 people died and the IRB is backing an appeal, headed 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 are also visiting.