Auckland, (Reuters) – Thousands of rugby fans flooded onto the downtown streets of Auckland’s waterfront on Friday as the country began the rugby World Cup in a carnival-like atmosphere.
Fans proudly displaying their team’s jerseys with flags draped over shoulders and lashings of face paint were the order of the day as groups worked on chants, mingled and practiced some good-natured ribbing with their neighbours.
Even Briton Joseph Marsh, a self-confessed soccer fan, found himself enjoying the occasion.
“You just can’t help but get caught up in all of this – it’s brilliant,” Marsh told Reuters.
The opening day of the tournament also saw the unveiling of Auckland’s Party Zone on the waterfront, which will provide the focus for the open air festivities in New Zealand’s largest city throughout the Sept. 9 – Oct. 23 tournament.
People started lining up outside the gates to the venue as early as 1000 (2200 GMT), keen to be among the 12,000-strong capacity crowd.
By the time security opened the gates at 1500 the queue had stretched almost a kilometre down the road.
Many late comers had already given up getting into the venue and were looking for the closest bar or cafe to settle in for the first game between New Zealand and Tonga at Eden Park later. Randall Oliver travelled with his wife from Pukekohe, just south of Auckland, and was one of the first in the queue for the Party Zone.
He grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, but moved to New Zealand three years ago and has always been an All Blacks fan.
“New Zealand will win easily tonight – 50-odd points I’d say,” said a confident Mr Oliver.
But just a little further down the queue, a group of young French university students were not so sure.
The four friends arrived in New Zealand a fortnight ago and have been travelling the country, enjoying the sights. They will only have time to see one French game before returning home to continue with their studies.
But it is not the Tricolours that Charles Lhernet is predicting will lift the Webb Ellis trophy on Oct. 23.
“Australia will win the Cup,” he said. “I think they are the best team. New Zealand is under too much pressure.”
There was, however, only one game on the radar for Tongan Caroline Kula and her friends Ronelle Pokai and Jane Smith – Friday’s opener between New Zealand and Tonga, which attracted several thousand Tongan supporters to the harbour front venue.
“We had to get down here early to get a place in the Fan Zone,” Kula said. “Tonga is going to go off.”