City basks in warm cup glow

It was a long time coming. All the planning, all the spending, all the waiting and all the anticipation came to a head at the weekend with the opening of the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand and the beginning of the South's role in that. For Dunedin this has been an especially drawn out build-up, primarily because of the Otago Stadium, the giant leap of faith by those who pushed it through.

Questions remain about the stadium's affordability, particularly because the city fathers and mothers, faced with monumental costs, have not curbed other expensive projects or started to run a tighter city council operation. But the stadium and the beginning of the Rugby World Cup in Dunedin at the weekend far exceeded expectations.

Almost no-one who went to the centrepiece match of the first weekend, England versus Argentina, could have gone away disappointed. The stadium, full to its roof, looked on television and in real life like something out of science fiction. And it sounded, at times, like a space craft taking off. It reverberated from well before the first whistle and echoed to the sounds of exuberant Argentinian supporters jumping up and down and singing their songs, and to England's fans belting out Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.

The 26,000-plus people who made their way to and from the venue did so smoothly; and praise for the helpfulness of stadium staff and all the volunteers has been plentiful. Those who had been to previous events at the stadium suspected they would be in for something special, while many first-timers went away astonished. The stadium full for a top rugby test was a sight and sound to behold.

The World Cup opening itself, said to have been watched at home by almost two million New Zealanders, did the nation proud as the focus on Friday night turned to Auckland. What a debacle, however, for that city's public transport and in particular the trains. What a shame that black spot took the edge off the successful weekend in various centres around the country.

The Rugby World Cup is simply massive by the standards of New Zealand and is being embraced by much of the nation. As an international "event" it is receiving the support and backing of many who would not have a clue about the intricacies of the breakdown or the tactics of the front row. Most southerners who go to matches in Dunedin and Invercargill will, while usually backing the underdog, not really care about the results.

They are there to share and enjoy the festivities for a once-in-a-lifetime occasion. Impressive numbers, about 12,500, watched Scotland beat Romania after a late rush of ticket sales and the Otago Stadium can expect large crowds for the next three matches.

Christchurch's tragic earthquake misfortune proved Dunedin's gain with the hosting of England transferred south and with the, albeit temporary, size and vitality of Argentinian support. They brought life and colour not just to the game but also the central city and to the fan zone at the Dunedin Town Hall on Friday night.

Given the balmy weather, the Octagon became the focus for fun on Saturday night. City bars, restaurants and accommodation providers all had bumper weekends and there was remarkably little trouble or bad behaviour.

This did not all happen by chance and the relevant authorities, and especially the Dunedin City Council, deserve praise for the scope of their planning and their attention to detail. What a contrast to the transport situation going off the rails in Auckland.

Interest from now will ebb and flow in Dunedin, Invercargill and the training and recreation base of Queenstown because the high pitch of the weekend could never be sustained until the final on October 23. Nevertheless, the Rugby World Cup is so far fulfilling the promise of sport at its best. At the weekend it provided a healthy distraction from the worries and woes of life and fostered community and pride across New Zealand.

Dunedin and the South, in particular, can look forward to the rest of the cup as well as looking back on a successful weekend. They can bask in a warm glow as they showed off their charms and their striking new stadium.


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