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The seventh Rugby World Cup kicked off with a string of events across Auckland, New Zealand .It began with the arrival in the citys’ habour of a fleet of 26 waka (traditional Maori boats) and culminated in a spectacular audiovisual ceremony and a burst of fire works.
The most anticipated part of the night was the pre-match off between New Zealands’ Rugby team (the All Blacks) and the Tonga national team.A very fiery match off it was,with the All Blacks repeating their custom haka snarls and the Tonga replying with equally intense snarls.
The event was a thematic mix of Maori tradition and rugby heritage, focused around a massive circular screen stuck to the centre of the field. It framed a torrent of images of animated Maori koru symbols which became a sea of yachts, of distended hammerhead sharks. Then came an extended tracking shot through the landscape of New Zealand.
The imposing silhouette of the promised mystery sporting legend, whose identity has been a matter of some speculation in New Zealand in recent days. The silhouette belonged to Jonah Lomu, the towering former All Black of Tongan descent. Soon it was time, as tradition dictates, for “The World in Union”, this time accompanied by battalions of Pacific drums and ukuleles, and hundreds dancing around a seven-metre high replica of the Webb Ellis Cup.
The giant trophy’s gleam was matched only by the grin of the New Zealand prime minister, John Key, a man who has, in the eyes of opponents, “superglued himself to the All Blacks”. He, in turn, was outshone, however, in the cultural stakes at least, by the IRB chairman, Bernard Lapasset, who greeted the crowd in a laudable burst of Maori language.
As a volley of fireworks cascaded over the stadium, city and waterfront, Eden Park, filled to its 60,000 capacity, returned to its normal shape. Much expanded and beautified, inside and out, in the lead-up to the tournament, Eden Park is a dazzling sight,the gaps in its gums filled by temporary stands, which will be dismantled at the tournament’s conclusion and shipped to east London for next year’s Olympics.
Tonga was beaten by the All blacks.The biggest cheer of the night, however, was for the Tongans’ single try ,narrowly edging out the gasp at the sight of All Black pin-up Sonny Bill Williams replacing his torn shirt. The arrival of the Tongan team earlier in the week, and the eruption of enthusiasm that greeted them, had palpably lifted the energy and profile of the World Cup as a whole.
South Auckland Tongans decamped en masse to the central city, transforming the mood. Some had voiced concerns over whether people would turn up to Queen’s Wharf, the part of the redeveloped waterfront exuberantly christened “Party Central” by the prime minister. But on opening day, at least, the problem was the very opposite.
The full house sign for the site, home to the expo centre Cloud (variously renamed by locals as the worm, the stocking and the discarded condom) and its neighbouring booze barn, a shrine to the sponsor’s product, went up 20 minutes after the doors opened at 3pm. Those who narrowly missed out would be entitled to curse a giant rugby ball, which when inflated at Queen’s Wharf cut its capacity by 3,000 to 12,000.
In the lead-up to the game, Crowded House’s Neil Finn and his brother Tim played to the crowds. And just in case the atmosphere and lager were dulling New Zealanders’ nagging anxiety about consecutive World Cup near misses, replacing it, perhaps, with mental replays of 1987, when the All Blacks hosted and won the first World Cup, the Finn brothers took care of that.
They chose to open with an old Split Enz favourite, History Never Repeats.