Nation's troubles take backseat as party begins

After tough 12 months

Last updated 06:46 10/09/2011
All Blacks fans in Auckland.
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All Blacks fans in Auckland.
New Zealand vs Tonga
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Sonny Bill Williams of the All Blacks and Taniela Moa.

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New Zealanders can put behind them 12 months of despair caused by a devastating earthquake, tragic mine explosion and a fluttering economy to begin a six-week party as the All Blacks beat Tonga 41-10 in the opening match of the Rugby World Cup last night.

Kiwis were left devastated after Christchurch's February 22 earthquake in which 181 people were killed and much of the city destroyed.

That followed the death of 29 miners after a methane gas explosion at the Pike River mine last November as the country, like many others, struggled with the impact of the global financial crisis.

But yesterday thousands of party-goers thronged the streets of downtown Auckland and millions more gathered in pubs, open-air venues and front rooms around the country to celebrate the opening of the seventh global showcase of the sport.

It wasn't all smooth sailing, with the city's emergency services pushed to the limit  and the transport system struggling to cope.

Police spokesperson Noreen Hegarty said there were "pockets of disorder" and at some times the situations had become "volatile".

Auckland Hospital accident and emegency staff said they attended to two people who were assaulted and two people injured in a car accident. Both incidents were in relation to the game.

The department was at "103 per cent" capacity last night dealing with assaults and alcohol related injuries.

Auckland hospitals communications manger, Mark Fenwick said there was "a lot of alcohol related harm."

Earlier, along Auckland's waterfront rugby fans proudly displayed their team's jerseys with flags draped over shoulders and lashings of face paint 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 as he queued outside the Fan Zone with several thousand others before it opened.

More than 60,000 fans at Eden Park then greeted the worldwide television audience with a glittering sea of mobile phones and cameras as a solo voice sang a haunting karanga, or welcome, in the darkness.

The spectacular opening ceremony only served to add to the party atmosphere.

But while the first half of the opening match started with a bang, it ultimately did not live up to those expectations as the heavily-favoured All Blacks failed to settle any jitters their fans had of ending a 24-year World Cup drought.

New Zealand, who have entered every World Cup as favourites since they won the inaugural tournament in 1987, came into Friday's match on the back of two successive losses in the Tri-Nations.

Fans had expected an emphatic statement, similar to the start made by the 1987 side when they beat Italy 70-6 in a match highlighted by John Kirwan's stunning length-of-the field try through virtually the entire Italian side.

The hosts started brilliantly with their exciting backline cutting the Tongans to shreds with clever offloads and seemingly poised to replicate the mammoth scores of their last two matches against the Pacific islanders _ 102-0 and 91-7 victories.

Centre Ma'a Nonu, however, was quick to remind his compatriots of the status of the tournament and that it may have been too much for people to expect them to push the century mark again.

''Maybe there's a perception that we should have put a lot more points on Tonga,'' Nonu told reporters.

''Mate, this is the World Cup and they came at us, it's not going to be a walk in the park, if you wanna go further in this tournament, we have to make fewer errors and work harder.''

England, the 2003 champions, face Argentina, who finished third at the 2007 tournament, clash in Dunedin in the highlight of the second day of the World Cup.

- Stuff with Reuters

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