The wait is over, Chris Robshaw leads hosts England out at Twickenham on Friday to play Fiji and kick off the Rugby World Cup that promises six weeks of spectacular record breaking.
Organisers say they will get their biggest ever World Cup revenues — £240 million ($370 million) — the 203 countries and territories watching on television are a new record. And on the pitch New Zealand hope they will become the first team to win back-to-back titles.
Bookmakers are backing Richie McCaw’s All Blacks, just ahead of England. But the tournament’s 28-year history is littered with the wrecked hopes of favourites.
And Robshaw — along with his Australia, South Africa and France counterparts– is among rivals hoping they can pull off an upset in the pressure cooker atmosphere.
“We are under no illusions as to exactly how big it is going to be,” Robshaw told the BBC.
“But as players it’s about going out there and playing our game, and trying not to get too caught up in the emotion.”
England and Fiji will be the immediate centre of attention at Twickenham, the host country’s home ground for more than a century and one of rugby’s biggest stadiums with an 82,500 seat capacity and its own hotel.
But the focus of the 20-team tournament will soon switch to the form of defending champions New Zealand.
The All Blacks have been the game’s standard-setters for more than 100 years — having won more 76 percent of all their Tests and close to 90 percent since 2012. Victories over New Zealand are some of the most highly-prized successes in sport.
However, no side have won two straight World Cups and even with all their fiery haka ceremonies, the All Blacks have yet to lift the Webb Ellis Trophy on foreign soil. Their 1987 and 2011 triumphs were both at home.
When England last staged World Cup matches in 1999, New Zealand were on the receiving end of one of rugby union’s most astonishing results of all time when France, who had been 24-10 behind, recovered to beat the All Blacks 43-31 in front of a stunned Twickenham crowd.
– ‘Beast of a thing to win’ –
“Definitely the All Blacks are a good enough side to do it,” said former New Zealand wing Jonah Lomu, a member of the side that lost to France 16 years ago.
“But whether you do it or not is a different story
“It is a beast of a thing to try and win. It is one of the most difficult things to win back-to-back and no one has ever done it.”
As well as being hosts, there is the added pressure for England of being drawn in the so-called ‘group of death’ that also includes Australia and Wales.
The exceptionally strong pool means at least one of rugby union’s major nations will not make it to the last eight. The top two from each of the four pools qualify. The nightmare scenario for the hosts — commercially and in terms of maintaining public interest — is an early England exit.
For England, while playing at Twickenham is very familiar, appearing in a World Cup will be a new experience for many members of Stuart Lancaster’s squad.
“It’s new for me and a lot of the players but we are making it business as usual in terms of our preparation work,” said England prop Joe Marler.
Friday’s match will be anything but usual for Pacific Nations champions Fiji, a team with plenty of talented players but at the opposite end of the scale to England in terms of finance and infrastructure.
The World Cup opener will be just the fourth time Fiji, who have never beaten England, have played a Test match at Twickenham.
Coach John McKee has done his best to prepare his side for the experience.
“We had a little bit of a strategy earlier in the campaign in Fiji, we had a PA (public address) system playing crowd noise and the sounds from Twickenham.”
But now comes the real thing. – Agence France-Presse