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Rugby World Cup host New Zealand ready to share rugged game that's in the national psyche
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) ' Ox and his mates are hitting the road to watch their beloved All Blacks play in the Rugby World Cup, making a trip they've been working on for months.
Shortages of hotel accommodation and reports of high prices for anything still vacant haven't bothered Ox, Horny, Snapper or Cookie, either, because they're traveling in a $3,000 delivery truck they've converted into a makeshift motorhome.
In many ways, the four blokes, all in their 50s, represent the spirit of rugby in New Zealand. In this isolated nation of 4 million people, rugby has been the most important game for more than a century. It has become entwined with the attributes New Zealanders most value in each other ' loyalty, brotherhood, ingenuity and humility. It appeals to a rugged physicality that New Zealanders identify with.
Already the 20 international teams that will compete for the title of rugby world champion have begun arriving in New Zealand. The tournament, which is held every four years, will include 48 games and run for six weeks starting Sept. 9. Long shots like Russia and the U.S. will compete against rugby powerhouses like England and South Africa.
So far, 1.1 million match tickets have been sold ' nearly three-quarters of the total available ' making it by far the biggest event New Zealand has ever staged.
The country is planning a big party. But there have been some hiccups along the way.
On the international stage, rugby doesn't attract the following of sports like basketball or football. But in New Zealand it dominates. Some 147,000 men, women and children play the game competitively ' more than 3 percent of the population. The game crosses cultural and economic boundaries.
The roots of its popularity here trace back to the All Blacks 1905-06 tour of Britain, France and North America. The team from the colonial outpost made an impression by winning 34 out of 35 matches.
"Winning. That's how it all came about," says Ron Palenski, an author and historian who runs New Zealand's Sports Hall of Fame. "We were a small country, and there were not that many things that we were better at than anybody else in the world. It was established very early on ... and it became a rallying point for New Zealand, a point of pride."
Indeed, the All Blacks continued to dominate. The 1924-25 team became known as "The Invincibles" after winning all 32 of their matches. In all, the All Blacks have won three-quarters of their international games ' although they have won just one World Cup.
The four buddies hitting the road next week hope that will change. Danny "Ox" Mather, Greg "Snapper" Vreeburg, Grant "Horny" Hornblow and Gavin "Cookie" Cook are all self-employed tradesmen who've juggled their work schedules and family life to accommodate four weeks on the road. They plan to stay in van parks with the idea of meeting other fans from across the world.
They've installed insulation, a sink, a power system, and an old shower door to provide some light in their home on wheels. Oh, and they've crammed four beds into a 10-foot long interior ' a squeeze, but they aren't planning to spend much time indoors.
They've stashed provisions in friends' freezers along the way to keep them fed. They'll be taking plenty of beer. They've bought tickets to every All Blacks group match plus the finals, and plan to see some other teams play, too. And they believe they'll save at least $10,000 on accommodation.
New Zealand was a surprise selection to host this year's tournament. Although a sentimental favorite, the country didn't have the size to produce the kind of revenue that larger countries could command. Yet it slipped past the front-runners thanks to a clever marketing campaign that promoted the country as a "Stadium of Four Million."
The government has been the financial underwriter for the tournament. It predicts it will lose about $33 million ' money it says will be well spent on promoting the country. The games are such a big deal that the government went as far as changing the school calendar so that children would be on vacation for the final.
One of the sadder moments in the planning came in March when tournament organizers decided to relocate the seven matches due to be played at the AMI Stadium in Christchurch. The stadium was judged too badly damaged by the devastating earthquake that hit the city a month earlier. The quake destroyed much of the city's downtown and killed 181 people.
Elsewhere, New Zealand has spent $400 million revamping its existing stadiums and building a new facility in Dunedin.
By nature, New Zealanders tend to be reserved and aren't the type to plan for over-the-top hoopla, even at a world tournament. Yet they have been trying to be good hosts.
In the Northland district, for instance, there's a "Paint it Red" campaign to celebrate the fact that the three teams that will be based there ' Canada, Japan and Tonga ' all have red flags and red team colors. Regional authorities are distributing 42 kilometers (26 miles) worth of red banner tape to adorn stores.
In the town of Blenheim, authorities have added Russian translations to some street signs to celebrate the arrival of that team. Throughout the country, hundreds of concerts and festivals are planned, including major celebrations along Auckland's waterfront.
Not all the planning has gone smoothly. Two promotions ' one involving 1,000 sheep running through downtown Auckland, the other urging fans to abstain from sex to support the All Blacks ' were canceled after receiving widespread ridicule.
There's also been some price gouging. A motor lodge in Auckland reportedly jacked up room prices from $27 per night to $270 per night during the cup. The manager declined to comment to The Associated Press.
Those kind of stories have put off some Australians, said Mike Jones, the general manager of Total Sports Travel in Melbourne. He said his bookings are down from four years ago when the tournament was held in France. He blames the global recession.
"The big contributing factor is that it's overpriced," Jones said. "New Zealand obviously tried to cash in on the event by charging a lot more."
Tournament organizers reject that notion. They say price-gouging is rare and they are happy with visitor numbers ' which they say may top 100,000 ' and ticket sales to date. Still, Rugby New Zealand 2011 chief executive Martin Snedden joined the country's sports and recreation minister Murray McCully in Australia last week to try and drum up some last-minute business.
What worries Snedden more than visitor numbers is what will happen if the All Blacks, the tournament favorites, get knocked out before the final.
"It is a threat," Snedden said. "My own feeling is that if that happened, we would come through it. But I recognize that it would absolutely and utterly test us, the character of the nation.
"That would be a moment when people would have to take a deep breath, and remember they're hosts, and put aside their disappointment, and keep a smile on their face," he said.
One person who says it wouldn't change a thing is "Ox" Mather. He says the main objectives of their road trip are to meet other rugby enthusiasts from all over the world and to have a great time.
"It's just a sport," he said. "It's not live or die. If they lose, it's just another day."