The French organisational skills have been put to the test before the much-awaited Paris Olympics 2024 as the Rugby World Cup began at Stade de France Friday between the host and New Zealand, drawing millions of sports enthusiasts to the venues.
There is a lot of support for France on its soil but it is to face for the first time the three-time world while reigning champions South Africa begin their campaign against Scotland Sunday.
Last year, there was a chaotic football Champions League final at the Stade de France on the outskirts of Paris that is to host the final of this tournament.
As the Paris Olympics approaches, the World Cup will be seen as a litmus test for French authorities to prove they have learned from the mistakes during the football showpiece between Liverpool and Real Madrid last year.
The tournament is expected to provide a spectacle perhaps unmatched in previous editions, with New Zealand great Dan Carter, a World Cup winner in 2011 and 2015, telling AFP he is looking forward to the “closest Rugby World Cup of all time.”
Even the bookmakers can barely separate reigning champions South Africa, the world’s number one side Ireland, effervescent hosts France and the enigmatic All Blacks.
By a quirk of the draw made in 2020, all four have been loaded into the same half, meaning at least two will be eliminated before the semi-final stage.
That gives misfiring England, Wales and Australia hope they could play themselves into contention before the business end of the competition in late October.
France — three-time runners-up — came into this tournament on a wave of expectation.
They went through 2022 unbeaten, claiming a Six Nations Grand Slam, and beating all three of their major tournament rivals, Ireland, New Zealand and South Africa in the same calendar year.
In captain and scrum-half Antoine Dupont, they have one of the game’s outstanding talents.
“We’ve never been so well prepared,” Dupont told AFP this week, adding that “we have a promising generation of talented players who have gained experience and continuity in the backbone of the team.”
Outsiders Argentina will believe they can add rugby’s highest accolade to the football World Cup they claimed last year in Qatar — when they beat France in the final.
Eyes on France amid Rugby World Cup
The rugby extravaganza kicks off a remarkable year of sporting excitement in France.
Around 2.5 million rugby fans are expected to attend World Cup fixtures across nine venues in France, including 600,000 from abroad.
French authorities are keenly aware that the eyes of the world are on them.
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, who came under fire over the policing of last year’s Champions League when some Liverpool supporters were teargassed and fans were preyed on by pickpockets, says major police reinforcements have been introduced to fight “delinquency”, especially around the Stade de France.
He insisted that officers would be focused on looking after visiting fans, rather than treating them as hooligans.
Excitement was high in France with thousands of people gathered at a fan zone in the southwest rugby stronghold of Toulouse to watch the host nation’s match against the All Blacks on giant screens.
There were similar scenes in Paris and Marseille. The opening match ensures the tournament will get off to a fitting start.
It is one of the most epic fixtures in World Cup history, producing countless moments of drama, such as the 1999 semi-final when France roared back from a 24-10 deficit early in the second half to memorably win 43-31 against the Jonah Lomu-inspired All Blacks.
And then there was France’s thrilling 20-18 quarter-final victory in 2007, and New Zealand´s nervy 8-7 triumph in the final on home soil four years later.
France coach Fabien Galthie said fans were in for a treat.
“(The All Blacks) do it best,” he said. “We’re so happy to play this team. For us, Friday is a party, a joy, an honour, it’s marvellous.”
The early stages of the tournament will be played in unseasonal heat, with the temperature at kickoff on Friday set to be 29 degrees Celsius (84 degrees Fahrenheit).
Players will be able to take drinks in breaks in each of the halves, as they did at the 2019 World Cup in Japan.