Rugby madness grips Kiwis
Confession first. I'm a New Zealander.
No one would argue now that choosing New Zealand to host the 2011 Rugby World Cup was the right decision. When the International Rugby Board voted on the host in 2005, I was surprised the tournament wasn't awarded to Japan, which would of course been good for the growth of the game in Asia. Japan will finally get its turn in 2019.
But the images broadcast around the world of the games played so far in New Zealand and the party surrounding them, are also great for the sport in a uniquely Kiwi way. This is a small nation but one that is mad about rugby and the organisers' plan to market the event being held in a stadium of 4 million people, was a clever move. There are fan zones and big screens set up around the country to enable people to get involved even if they're not going to the games.
So far the crowds at the games have been very good. No, they're not all sold out but the turnout is very strong and will only increase as the tournament progresses. New Zealand also hosted the inaugural World Cup in 1987, when in stark contrast, some tickets for the final between the All Blacks and France were given away.
On the field, has rugby grown since 1987? We're still seeing basically the same teams in each tournament. South Africa was banned from the first World Cup because of apartheid with Zimbabwe taking its place. Other than that, all the teams from 1987 are playing in the 2011 event, with the addition of 4 teams, Namibia, Russia, Georgia and Samoa.
Yes, the usual rugby powers will be present at the business end of the tournament but what has stood out so far is that the gap between the top and bottom is closing. We've seen strong performances from Romania against Scotland, Japan against France, Italy against Australia and less surprisingly, Argentina against England.
Before the World Cup, there was speculation the event would revert back to 16 teams instead of 20. The games so far have proven the right decision was made.