A nation waits
Kiwi rugby pundit James Gemmell looks at what the 2011 World Cup will mean for hosts New Zealand.
Last Updated: 07/09/11 2:42pm
It's been almost six years since New Zealand won the hosting rights to the Rugby World Cup, and just on four since the last global showpiece in France. Now this tiny, rugby-obsessed nation sits poised for its biggest moment in the international spotlight, and it's as ready as it can be.
Rugby is so much a part of the fabric of New Zealand that daily life well beyond the sidelines has been reshaped. Take the education system; central Auckland schools have been given the opening day of the tournament off to experience the occasion, and further down the track, school terms nationwide have been shifted to align with the finals fortnight. Remarkable, and one for the 'only in New Zealand' file.
And who ever said sport and politics don't mix? The next general election has been announced for November, with the current administration banking on an All Black win on October 23rd for a landslide victory of their own just over a month later.
It is this obsession that will separate 2011 from previous World Cup years, and the passion of the people here is what New Zealand's bid back in 2005 was built upon.
The people's tournament
We can't compete with the infrastructure or transport that the larger international cities provide, and we don't have the population to sustain the truly world class stadiums. There will be hiccups; trains will be late, hotels stretched beyond capacity and bars and restaurants unable to meet demand. The organisers have planned for this, and have pushed their preparations as far as responsibly possible. Anyone involved with London's Olympic preparations will know the importance of legacy and sustainability. New Zealand is, after all, a country of just four million.
Eden Park is the prime example. Renovated to the required 65,000 seat capacity, it is an historic stadium that will fulfil its hosting role adequately. But the towering temporary seating scaffolds at either end of the ground are an eyesore that leaves one reminiscing enviously about the magnificent Stade de France.
No, this tournament won't be remembered for the arenas that host the games, but rather for the people that fill them. It's about the small towns that welcome the minnow teams, about the immigrants from the Pacific Islands, England and South Africa that suddenly explode with national pride, and it's about ordinary rugby-loving New Zealanders who have suffered greatly this year. Those in Christchurch need the Rugby World Cup more than most.
In fact, writing with a detachment that will dissolve the minute the first whistle blows, I can't help but draw comparisons between this World Cup and that held in South Africa 16 years ago.
Francois Pienaar's Springboks carried with them the expectation of a nation and the promise of a brighter future. For very different reasons, Richie McCaw's All Blacks face a similar challenge. They are the embodiment of the nation's obsession with the game, and it's on their shoulders that the immense weight of hope and expectation rests.
The rugby will take care of itself, and from Friday on it will take centre stage. Who knows which teams or individuals we'll be talking about in a week, or six weeks. But rest assured the rugby-mad people of New Zealand will star throughout.