OPINION: Remember the euphoria that greeted the announcement that New Zealand would host the Rugby World Cup 2011? Well, it's rapidly evaporating.
The realisation has dawned that this event is being staged not so much for the benefit of heartland rugby lovers - the "stadium of four million", to quote the seductive PR line New Zealand rugby bosses used in their successful cup bid - as for the interests of World Rugby Inc and its big-business partners, the broadcasters and corporate sponsors.
Oh, and we shouldn't forget the politicians, who will doubtless be granted access to the plushest hospitality boxes in return for their tireless cheerleading efforts.
I detect a mood of growing public scepticism and disenchantment, even among rugby fans. You know something has gone seriously wrong when a high- profile sports writer, the New Zealand Herald's Chris Rattue, declares we were sold a pup.
Economists are pooh-poohing the projected economic returns from the RWC as wildly optimistic. Even the potential global TV audience is said to have been greatly overstated.
The RWC website tells us the event is all about tradition, pride, intensity and camaraderie. Strangely, it neglects to mention the real driving force, which is money.
It's all about money. We spend it, and the International Rugby Board pockets it.
We spend it in the form of massive public investment - one estimate puts it at $1 billion-plus - in stadiums and infrastructure, to ensure everything is up to the ultra-fussy standards of the IRB and the broadcasters. Never mind that the country is already awash in debt and floundering economically.
We also spend it in the form of admission prices, which are far higher for All Black matches than for any other games. Tickets to watch the ABs range from $61 for a child in the least desirable seating areas to $460 for a "Category A" adult, plus a $15 "handling fee" for every ticket.
We may be generously underwriting the event, but clearly there are no concessions to New Zealand rugby fans.
Visitors from overseas are being ripped off too, as greedy accommodation providers hike room rates by as much as 500 per cent. It's hardly surprising that interest from Australia is reported to be sluggish, with one travel agent quoted as saying rugby fans are balking at paying $5000 to cross the Tasman for just one game.
Greed may turn out to be the undoing of the RWC, and it starts with the organisers.
In the meantime, countless operators of legitimate businesses are fretting that they will fall foul of the ridiculous and repressive Major Events Management Act by mentioning forbidden words such as "world" and "rugby" in their advertising.
If I may use a sleazy metaphor, New Zealand is like a helpless maiden being ravaged while the politicians, the very people who should be protecting her, hold her down and insist she's enjoying it.
OF COURSE, none of the above stops me from hoping New Zealand will win the Webb-Ellis trophy. We might as well salvage whatever pride we can from this costly extravaganza.
But as Sydney rugby guru Spiro Zavos warns, nothing can be taken for granted. Promoting his book How To Watch The Rugby World Cup 2011, Zavos - a former journalist on this newspaper - says there are half a dozen teams that are capable of winning "on the day".
The All Blacks may be rated the best in the world, but when it comes down to the RWC final, assuming they make it that far, the result may turn on something as fickle as the bounce of the ball or a referee's call.
I like Zavos's laconic response when people ask him who's going to win. "We're having a rugby match to find that out," he tells them.
I BET I wasn't the only person who bristled at the electronic signboards on all the highways during Easter weekend sternly reminding us that police were out on the roads in numbers.
There's something irritating about this finger-wagging approach to policing. It's not only intrusive, in a slightly unsettling Big Brother fashion, but patronising too.
The underlying assumption seems to be that all motorists are rampant hoons in the making, kept in check only by the knowledge that police are watching us and ready to pounce.
This head-prefect approach goes hand-in-hand with the increasing propensity for senior police officers to lecture us on our supposed behavioural failings - for example, tut-tutting over liquor consumption.
Fear of the cops is no bad thing. In fact I think it should be encouraged. But public respect for police isn't enhanced by their fondness for nannying us. Most people, I'm sure, would prefer them to concentrate on collaring villains rather than instructing us to sit up straight and eat our greens.
Incidentally, the electronic signboards at Easter were a giant fib. In several hundred kilometres of driving, I saw hardly a single police car.
- The Dominion Post