Rugby World Cup set for kick-off

Hosts New Zealand launch the seventh Rugby World Cup against Tonga on Friday hoping to end a 24-year wait for a second global triumph.

The All Blacks, inaugural winners in 1987, have lost in the knock-out stages of each subsequent tournament.

Auckland's Eden Park, which will also stage the final on 23 October, hosts the first of 48 matches in 11 venues.

Tri-Nations champions Australia face Italy on Saturday, when Scotland face Romania and England tackle Argentina.

The other two home nations, Ireland - who play the United States - and Wales, who confront defending champions South Africa, open their campaigns on Sunday.

More than 90,000 supporters are expected to visit New Zealand over the next six weeks, almost a quarter of them from the UK.

Matches will take place from Whangarei in the far north of the North Island, to Invercargill, some 1,290 km (800 miles) away at the bottom of the South Island, where Scotland open their campaign on Saturday.

Fans in Auckland, where All Blacks flags have been draped over many houses and are fluttering from car windows, have been treated to impromptu haka warrior dances by a 54-strong group of young Maori men, who will perform at Friday's opening ceremony.

The opening match (0930 BST, 2030 local time) which follows sees New Zealand, who have never lost a World Cup pool match, kick-start proceedings at the refurbished, 60,000-capacity Eden Park, where they have not lost a Test since 1994.

The All Blacks, who were shocked by France in the quarter-finals in 2007, are desperate to set about proving their status as the world's number one team after months of build-up and reminders of their previous World Cup woes.

"You'd be a mug if you haven't learned in the four years since then," said captain Richie McCaw.

"I've been involved in two [World Cups] where we didn't achieve what we were after and the shock sits in the back of your mind.

"But history has shown that what has happened previously - good or bad - means nothing come kick-off. I think we are just ready to go now. It's been a long time coming I guess."

Tonga, ranked 12th in the worldexternal-link, gave South Africa a major scare at the last World Cup and include a quartet of players who ply their trade in Britain - Northampton prop Soane Tonga'uiha, Worcester hooker Aleki Lutui, Cardiff Blues prop Taufa'ao Filise and Nottingham flanker Sione Kalamafoni.

"I think they will test us physically and they will test us with their athleticism," said All Blacks assistant coach Wayne Smith. "They are all good rugby players."

England supporters were gathering in Dunedin on the South Island where they meet Argentina, while their counterparts from Wales and South Africa mingled in the capital city of Wellington ahead of Sunday's clash.

In Saturday's other matches, Fiji take on Namibia, the lowest-ranked team in the tournament with only a few full-time players, while France play Japan in Auckland's North Harbour stadium.

On Sunday, the Ireland and United States players will observe one minute's silence before their match in New Plymouth to mark the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

"Obviously 9/11 is at the front of their minds, so it will be emotional," said US coach Eddie O'Sullivan, who was in charge of Ireland at the last World Cup.