(Check out video of the dazzling opening ceremonies here .)
Fans of New Zealand are hopeful that this is the year their national rugby team finally shed its reputation as choke artists on the sport’s grandest stage.
With the 2011 Rugby World Cup on Kiwi soil for the first time since New Zealand’s All Blacks won the inaugural tournament in 1987, the feeling is: now is the time to end the 24-year drought.
On Friday the All Blacks kicked off the Cup with a 41-10 victory against Tonga in Auckland, but despite the lopsided score, the win did little to bolster confidence that New Zealand is ready to contend with the likes of Australia and South Africa.
A crowd of 60,214 fans — nearly all dressed in the home team’s notorious black jerseys — watched their side grab a 27-0 lead through the first 31 minutes of the match. But from there the All Blacks struggled with turnovers and a lack of dominance up front. Despite running in six tries, the team knows it must improve.
“If you are up by some points, the good teams are the ones that keep their pressure on regardless of what the scoreboard says and that is something we will have to address a bit,” All Blacks captain Richie McCaw said. “We need to look at the reasons why we made mistakes. Was it because we were a little bit over eager, or whether or not we were trying too much? I’m not too sure.”
Still the All Blacks were pleased with a comfortable victory amid all the excitement of the tournament’s opening match which was preceded by an extravagent opening ceremony.
“We are excited about getting underway,” McCaw said. “It’s been a long time coming and to play in front of a crowd like this is pretty cool.”
Meanwhile Tonga left the field with heads held high, having notched their best-ever result against the All Blacks.
“I’m just really proud that the boys came back in the second half and even scored a try against a team like the All Blacks,” Tonga captain Finau Maka said. “The last time Tonga played the All Blacks (in 2003) the All Blacks scored 99 points, so I’m just really proud our boys scored a try.”
The tournament gets underway fully Saturday when France and Japan — who join New Zealand, Tonga and Canada — meet in Pool A. In Pool B, Scotland faces Romania in Invercargill and Argentina takes on England in Dunedin. Fiji and Namibia round out a full day of action, opening Pool D play in Rotorua. (Here’s the full tournament schedule.)
The United States kicks off its 2011 campaign against Ireland on Sunday in New Plymouth after attending a church service to honor the anniversary of 9/11. If you want to catch the action stateside, you’ll want to set your DVR. The match starts at 6 p.m. local time — which is 2 a.m. EST.
Just because I can’t talk All Blacks without watching the Haka, here’s something to get you going on a dreary Friday morning:
(Nothing sends a chill down the old spine like watching the Haka.)