Rugby World Cup to kick off with rival war dances
The Rugby World Cup is destined to start with a loud, angry and physical confrontation, even before kickoff when New Zealand opens against Tonga.
The Tongans won a toss of the coin which allows them to start their Sipi Tau — or cultural challenge, as the International Rugby Board describes it — on Friday night before the All Blacks start their world-famous haka at Auckland's Eden Park.
But as tournament director Kit McConnell revealed Wednesday, the rival war dances could be almost simultaneous.
Tonga "will go first [and] it's up to the All Blacks to determine when and how they respond to that," McConnell said. "It's not up to us to tell the teams how they choose to perform their challenge."
However long it takes or whomever crosses the line, it's certainly going to get the seventh edition under way in the distinctively Pacific style which local organizers are hoping to promote for the six-week World Cup— the first in New Zealand since the inaugural tournament in 1987.
That was the last time the All Blacks won the title and every edition since then the pressure from a rugby-crazed New Zealand public to win a second title has intensified.
New Zealand coach Graham Henry made nine changes to the starting lineup which lost the Tri-Nations decider to Australia in Brisbane last month, including a completely reshuffled backline in which flyhalf Daniel Carter was the only player unmoved. Ma'a Nonu was moved out one place in midfield to accommodate the recall of Sonny Bill Williams at inside centre, while Israel Dagg was given a start at fullback in place of 98-test veteran Mils Muliaina.
Richie McCaw will be leading the All Blacks for the 62nd time when he runs out for his 99th test on Friday against Tonga.
Two days ahead of kickoff of the 48-match tournament, 1,000 tickets were still available for the opening match.
Organizing committee chairman Martin Snedden expected them to sell quickly. Snedden, a former New Zealand test cricketer, has batted away concerns over ticket sales in recent weeks.
Ticket sales so far of 246 million New Zealand dollars ($204 million US) were only $22 million NZ ($18.2 million US) shy of target forecasts for the tournament — the only revenue the hosts keep for staging the tournament.
"That's 10 times bigger than any previous event held in New Zealand," Snedden said. "We've got 45 days to sell that $22 million NZ.
"In the last 100 days, we've done $77 million NZ ($64 million us). We're going to hit this target.
"The intensity of ticket sales in the last few days is just snowballing. And I don't have any reason to think that's going to stop."
He also defended the ticket pricing, which can range from about $390 NZ ($323 US) to $1,200 NZ ($995 US) for the final and from about $100 NZ ($83 US) to $450 NZ ($373 US) for the opening match and which some critics have said are beyond the average wage earner in New Zealand. Half of the tickets still unsold for the opening match are in the highest category.
Did organizers get the pricing right?
"Absolutely, we're happy," Snedden told The Associated Press. "This will be the biggest crowd we've had here for a game for 50 years."
Snedden said ticket sales for five of the pool matches at Eden Park, which is also venue for two quarter-finals, both semifinals and the final, already exceed 50,000, including New Zealand vs. Tonga at more than 58,000 and Fiji vs. Samoa at more than 56,000. The venue capacity is 60,000, including temporary seating installed for the World Cup.
"We've sold every ticket we've put on the market for the final," he said, adding that 1,500 had to be kept in reserve for both teams in the final, so more seats could come back onto the market.
Organizers announced the largest anti-doping program ever at a World Cup, with 300 urine and blood samples to be collected during the tournament, on top of the 1,000 conducted by the IRB on players from all 20 participating countries since 2010.
Heavy scrutiny will extend to the field. IRB referees chief Paddy O'Brien said the 10 officials controlling matches at the tournament had been instructed to strictly police infringements in the set-piece and breakdown, which slow down play. The aim, clearly, is to promote a running game.
After seven years of preparations, public interest started to heighten in New Zealand last month when the All Blacks hosted and beat Australia in the first Bledisloe Cup test at the revamped Eden Park.
Snedden said the "atmosphere was unsurpassed."
"We know that we are going to have something better on our hands for Rugby World Cup," he said. "Yes, we're focused on that opening match.
"It couldn't be better for us in terms of putting the All Blacks up against Tonga. We desperately want this tournament to reflect the true nature of who we are as New Zealanders and the place we hold in the Pacific."
IRB chairman Bernard Lappasset said he was anticipating "an exceptionally successful tournament."
"This mix between Maori culture and rugby tradition is one part of the success of this tournament, and the reason why this tournament is so special," he said. "All is set for a wonderful Rugby World Cup."
The IRB launched a new fundraising appeal to help rebuild rugby in Christchurch, which was devastated by deadly earthquakes in February and subsequently lost its rights to host seven World Cup matches.
"Christchurch won't play a direct part obviously in the hosting of rugby matches in the tournament," Snedden said. "It will play a significant part in the tournament in terms of the festival of events.
"The people in Christchurch are going to be in our hearts and our minds on many occasions during the tournament. It's been a tough 12 months in New Zealand.
"The country is ready to have fun. It's ready to have a party."