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It has arrived. Envisaged for years, planned, lobbied over, acquired, promoted, publicised and talked about until even talkback radio was blue in the face, the Rugby World Cup 2011 is here. On Thursday, the Pumas from Argentina touched down at Dunedin airport. A few hours earlier Ireland had arrived in Queenstown. Today, England flies into Momona.
There should be no doubt about the magnitude of the occasion.
For many New Zealanders, this tournament is a once-in-a-lifetime event. And not just for the activity that occurs on the sports field. It is accepted and respected that not everybody in this country either follows or likes sport in general or rugby in particular. This is how it should be. The country and culture would be peculiarly one-dimensional if this were indeed the case. It is also acknowledged that some may resent the way in which the media space and public discourse during the next several weeks may be hijacked by preoccupation with the oval ball.
But there will be compensations, social, commercial and cultural. In the immediate future, the city of Dunedin and the towns of the region will be abuzz. People will come from many different countries and all walks of life. They will inhabit our hotels, motels, backpackers and camping grounds. They will peruse shops, pass time at sidewalk bar tables, dine in cafes and restaurants, visit our museums, galleries, beaches and visitor destinations. Like many visitors, a good proportion of them will be curious to see our city and towns and the surrounding attractions.
This influx offers the South unprecedented opportunities to do what most New Zealanders do naturally: be good and gracious hosts.
Among the visitors will be a large contingent from England.
Originally scheduled to be played in Christchurch, their team's games were transferred to Dunedin following the September earthquake and the damage to AMI stadium. To the extent that Dunedin and Otago will benefit from their presence, there is further reason to put on a good show and make the visitors duly welcome.
Early doubts about the popularity of the tournament itself - at least in Dunedin - have largely been assuaged by the high proportion of available tickets already sold. Capacity at Forsyth Barr Stadium - which will be known as Otago Stadium during the tournament - will be reduced to 26,000 for the duration. By Wednesday 23,900 of these had been sold for the opening Dunedin match, England versus Argentina, on Saturday, September 10. Games between Ireland and Italy and England and Romania are not too far behind, with the remaining fixture between England and Georgia on September 18 lagging at about 10,000. But these are still early days and, as the tournament kicks off, the excitement of having a major international sports event in the region will build.
The pull of experiencing these games in New Zealand's newest and only covered sports ground cannot be underestimated.
Regardless of the divided stadium disposition of Dunedin citizens, the venue is already attracting rave reviews, and advance notices suggest the viewing experience will be far superior to that enjoyed at the much-loved but tired and run-down predecessor, Carisbrook.
The number of tickets purchased - 74,000 by midweek, 36% by Otago fans, 35% by international fans and 29% by other visitors - suggests that the novelty and expectations of the new stadium have played a part in the high ticket take-up. Those who have no interest in rugby will have their opportunity to experience it in months to come, in particular at this newspaper's 150th anniversary event, the Big Night In.
But for the moment, Rugby World Cup 2011 is the focus. It is the reason so many thousands of visitors will be arriving in Otago, bringing colour and life to our streets, camera in one hand contorting themselves or dropping to a knee to get the best angle for a shot of the Dunedin Railway Station, the Moeraki Boulders or the magnificent Remarkables.
There will be sights to be seen, hands to be shaken, conversations to join and encounters to be had. Crouch, pause, touch, engage? Game on!