World Cup fever grips NZ
Wellington - New Zealand has enthusiastically embraced the Rugby World Cup, making good on its promise to create "a stadium of four million" when it won the right to host the tournament in 2005.
As the rugby showcase heads into the knockout phase, organisers will be pleased with the packed stadiums seen during the pool stages of the largest event ever staged in New Zealand.
Fears the country's infrastructure could not cope with the world's third largest sporting event have so far proved unfounded and the rugby-mad New Zealand public have combined with some 95 000 overseas fans to create a festival atmosphere.
"IRB (International Rugby Board) officials have been telling me that this is arguably the best World Cup they've been to," Prime Minister John Key said last week.
"New Zealanders right across the country are being tremendous hosts and because New Zealand loves rugby, that's just manifested itself in a lot of New Zealanders who want to engage with the tourists that are here."
Cup fever has not only gripped large cities such as Auckland and Wellington, but also small communities such as Wairarapa and Te Puke, which adopted "minnow" nations like Georgia and Namibia, decking streets in flags and bunting.
The major organisational hiccup came at the opening ceremony on September 9, when the sheer volume of people wanting to soak up the atmosphere in central Auckland swamped the city's public transport system.
The government says these have been fixed and there will be no repeat of the transport chaos surrounding Auckland's Eden Park, the venue for two quarter finals, both semis and the final on October 23.
Inevitably, however, there have been gripes, including complaints from Scotland fans that heavy-handed officials were ruining the atmosphere at their games by banning spectators from playing the bagpipes.
Some Australian supporters also reported being jostled and spat upon by New Zealanders, prompting an appeal from tournament chief Martin Snedden for locals to keep trans-Tasman rivalries civil.
The IRB is also likely to examine the match schedule at future tournaments after dissatisfaction among smaller nations about short turnaround times between their games.
The most outspoken critic of the World Cup timetable was Samoan centre Eliota Sapolu Fuimaono, who likened the IRB's treatment of minnow nations to slavery and the Holocaust.
He escaped punishment for that outburst on Twitter but will face an IRB misconduct hearing over another rant in which he accused referee Nigel Owens of racism after Samoa's 13-5 loss to South Africa last Friday.
Internal divisions in the French camp also made headlines, while England centre Mike Tindall's boozy night out with a mystery blonde - less than two months after he married Queen Elizabeth's granddaughter Zara Phillips - sparked a tabloid frenzy.
Off the field, the main cloud hanging over the World Cup has been the deteriorating health of All Blacks legend Jonah Lomu, who has revealed he may need a second kidney transplant after an organ he received in 2004 began to fail.
Lomu, 36, was heavily involved in promoting the World Cup and played a major part in the opening ceremony, but fell ill earlier this month and is receiving daily dialysis at Auckland Hospital's renal unit.
"My kidney was failing and my body had become so toxic it started to shut down," Lomu said, adding that he hoped to recover in time to attend the final.
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