On the opening day of the seventh Rugby World Cup, dozens of performers of the traditional Maori war dance wowed crowds in two cities where the celebrations were like festivals on Friday. New Zealanders shed their reserved image by transforming downtown Auckland into a party zone with a distinctly Pacific feel.
Tens of thousands of rugby fans flooded the streets, draped in the flags of their favourite teams. Some brought guitars, others sang their national anthems. One man used hair spray and lacquer to paint his shaved head in black with a silver fern, in support of the New Zealand All Blacks team. Hundreds of cars cruised through the city with flags waving and horns blaring.
So many people lined up to get onto Queen's Wharf on the Auckland harbour front to join the celebrations that authorities were forced to start turning them away within 30 minutes of the wharf opening, when it hit a capacity crowd of 12,000.
Thousands more jammed into the Viaduct Harbor to watch the arrival of 20 waka — traditional Maori canoes — a 600-person haka, and a concert headlined by New Zealand musicians Tim and Neil Finn.
"It's an amazing day for it, we are so lucky," Auckland Mayor Len Brown told The Associated Press. "We are as ready as we are going to be. I'm confident it's going to be a brilliant World Cup."
The opening ceremony at Eden Park featured a stylized sequence in which a young boy in a rugby jersey smashed through crowds of would-be tacklers who fell at his feet like skittles. The ceremony paid tribute to Maori creation myths, New Zealand's spectacular scenery and Auckland's obsession with sailing with dreamlike sea sequences.
It was spectacular compared with the low-budget opener featuring marching girls which was hastily put together for the first Rugby World Cup in 1987, which New Zealand also hosted.
There were fireworks on the field, too, as the All Blacks raced to a 29-3 halftime lead against Tonga as the dust was settling from the ceremonies. The Tongans rallied in the second half, forcing New Zealand to struggle for long periods before winning the opening match 41-10.
Earlier in the day, about 50 performers blocked off one of Auckland's main streets to perform their flash mob haka. A similar group entertained people on Wellington's waterfront. The surprise hakas have become an Internet sensation in recent weeks.
There were thousands of Tongan supporters making plenty of noise downtown. Earlier in the week, the Tongan fans made the biggest impression of any support group here by turning out in their thousands to greet their arriving team, almost bringing Auckland Airport to a standstill.
Tongan supporter John Letu, 18, who moved from the island nation to live in New Zealand eight years ago, predicted Tonga would win the opening contest 37-18 — an unlikely outcome given that the New Zealanders had been expected to easily win.
There were also hundreds of fans from Samoa and other Pacific nations cramming Auckland. Many Pacific leaders and dignitaries were already in town to attend the Pacific Islands Forum, which was timed to coincide with the cup.
Megan Parr, 20, walked down the street wearing an American flag and an Uncle Sam hat over the top of her New Zealand colours.
"I want New Zealand to win, but I'm all for the USA doing well," said Parr, who moved here from the U.S. in 2003. "I've been getting a few looks — I'm a bit of singularity out here."
One young fan, Daniel Beban, 6, left school early and was headed to the waterfront with his mother Wendy Beban to watch his favourite team. His face was painted in New Zealand colours. He'd woken up at 4 a.m. because he was so excited.
Who was his favourite player?
"David Beckham" he replied without hesitation.
His mother laughed: "He loves soccer as well."