The seventh Rugby World Cup got underway at Eden Park here on Friday with hosts New Zealand opening up against Tonga as they 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, when South Africa’s Springboks emerged victorious.
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 dance, 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 it drew to a close and the All Blacks prepared to run onto the field.
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 1,290 kilometres (800 miles) 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.