The seventh Rugby World Cup was officially declared open at Eden Park Stadium in Auckland on Friday.
The president of the International Rugby Board Bernard Lapasset set the ball rolling for the 48-match tournament which will reach its climax with the final at the same venue on October 23.
The first match between New Zealand and Tonga was set to start immediately after the opening ceremony.
* Meanwhile World Cup burst into life across New Zealand Friday with an impromptu nationwide party as favourites the All Blacks look to axe the demons of tournaments past.
"We are ready," proclaimed tournament chief executive Martin Snedden as the world's top 20 teams prepared to start the seventh battle for the Webb Ellis Cup.
It is the largest event held in New Zealand and the country was buzzing with a party atmosphere with streets and houses decorated in team colours, cars plastered with national flags and bars and cafes packed.
While 60,000 people were to pack Eden Park for the opening spectacular and first game between New Zealand and Tonga, another 50,000 gathered on Auckland's waterfront "Party Central" area where big-screen televisions were installed.
The prime Queen's Wharf had reached its capacity of 12,000 people three hours before the festival began, while other official party venues around the country were also close to maximum.
"It's incredibly exciting," New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said as he headed to Eden Park. "New Zealand's done everything it can to be prepared, there's a really friendly atmosphere out there and people are loving what's going on."
Pubs and streets were a cacophony of sound as an estimated 95,000 people from around the world arrived to follow their teams through the 48-match festival spread over 13 cities, culminating with the final in Auckland on October 23.
"This is it now, this is the real thing. The whole world is here. It is where you want to be," said England manager and victorious 2003 captain Martin Johnson.
International Rugby Board chairman Bernard Lapasset has promised "an exceptional tournament" when Irish referee George Clancy signals the start of the opening game between the All Blacks and Tonga.
All Blacks legend Jonah Lomu, who is of Tongan descent, is tipped to play a starring role at the opening ceremony capping nationwide preparations that began in 2005 when New Zealand won the hosting rights.
Behind the festivity there was no denying the focus was on the pressure facing the All Blacks playing on home soil and plagued by a history of World Cup flops.
Their trophy cabinet is packed with silverware from successful Bledisloe Cup, Tri-Nations and other campaigns at home and abroad but it has not seen the prize that trumps them all -- the Webb Ellis Cup -- since 1987.
"The World Cup is the biggest stage and you want to prove yourself on that," said All Blacks skipper Richie McCaw, reflecting on the heartache of repeated failures.
"I've been involved in two where we didn't achieve what we were after and the shock is in the back of your mind."
France launch their campaign in Auckland against Japan at North Harbour stadium in the first of four matches to be played on Saturday.
Six Nations champions England play Argentina in Dunedin, Scotland face Romania in Invercargill while Fiji are against Namibia at Rotorua.
On Sunday, defending champions South Africa play Wales in Wellington, Australia are against Italy at North Harbour and Ireland have an emotionally charged encounter with USA in New Plymouth on the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks.
New Zealand has been looking forward to the celebrations after a year of tragedy when deadly earthquakes shattered the second largest city Christchurch and 29 people were killed in a mining disaster.
Seven matches were moved from Christchurch after the February earthquakes in which nearly 200 people died and the International Rugby Board (IRB) is backing an appeal, headed by McCaw, to raise funds to rebuild rugby infrastructure in the city.
Teams will also show their solidarity with Christchurch, a New Zealand rugby stronghold and home of the Canterbury Crusaders, with the All Blacks spending five days training there while England and Australia are also visiting.
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