The All Blacks got the seventh Rugby World Cup off to a winning start on Friday, defeating Tonga 41-10 in front of a capacity 60,000 crowd at Eden Park.
It was not an entirely convincing opener from the New Zealanders despite the lop-sided scoreline, but skipper Richie McCaw said it had been a good enough way to open their campaign to win the Webb Ellis Cup for the first time in 24 years.
Garnering a bonus point for scoring more than four tries, the win brought roars and screams of delight from tens of thousands of fans who had converged during the day on Auckland’s picturesque harbour waterfront.
The match was preceded by a glittering 30-minute opening ceremony which celebrating the country’s Maori heritage and unrivalled rugby pedigree
Then Bernard Lapasset, the French chairman of the International Rugby Board (IRB) officially declared the tournament open.
“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.
The mass of fans downtown, some of whom were from Australia, Europe and South Africa were treated to a succession of impromptu hakas, the celebrated Pacific Islands warrior dance made famous by the All Blacks.
Eden Park, refurbished and enlarged for the occasion, was packed as the opening ceremony started and the anticipation moved up another gear as it drew to a close and 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 Whangarai 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.
“It’s incredibly exciting,” New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said as he headed to Eden Park. “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 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.