10 Sep 2011

Huge crowds celebrate Rugby World Cup opening

12:12 am on 10 September 2011

The Rugby World Cup is underway, with huge crowds attending opening events in Auckland and an estimated worldwide audience of 1 billion people.

The official opening ceremony on Friday has shown off New Zealand's heritage - both cultural and rugby - with a light show that turned the Eden Park stadium at times into an ocean, mountains and a backyard rugby pitch.

A traditional Maori call of welcome, known as the karanga, opened the ceremony, followed by a highly energetic performance featuring dancers, singers, fireworks and a dazzling light show.

The ceremony was themed around the concept of a journey, with travellers from the four corners of the earth embarking on a journey together that ends at Auckland as teams prepare to battle for rugby's ultimate prize.

The largest roar of the opening was reserved for former All Black and World Cup legend Jonah Lomu as the ceremony concluded with the tournament anthem World in Union.

The All Blacks then kicked off the tournament in style, with a strong 41-10 win against Tonga on Friday night.

In the central city, a light and fireworks extravaganza was held on the waterfront, where a massive crowd gathered.

The Cloud - the main party venue on Queens Wharf - had to close after reaching its capacity of 12,000 people minutes after opening the gates at 3pm.

Thousands watched the arrival of a fleet of 20 waka (canoes) and 600 Maori warriors who paraded down Queen Street to Queens Wharf doing a mass haka. Singers Dave Dobbyn and the Finn Brothers entertained the crowds.

People unable to get a vantage point on the wharf resorted to watching the action on one of eight big screens around the party zone.

Rugby World Cup 2011 chief executive Martin Snedden says New Zealanders are ready to party after a tough 12 months with the Pike River mine disaster, the Canterbury earthquakes and the economic situation.

Twenty teams will compete for the Webb Ellis Cup, with the final to be played at Eden Park on 23 October. South Africa are the defending champions.