AUCKLAND (AFP) - International Rugby Board chairman Bernard Lapasset declared New Zealand ready Sunday to host an "extraordinary" Rugby World Cup despite questions about the tournament make-up and unsold tickets.
Rugby's four-yearly showpiece kicks off here on Friday when hosts New Zealand play tiny Pacific island neighbours Tonga with the final scheduled to be played six weeks later on October 23.
Most of the 20 competing teams have already arrived in the country and dispersed to the 13 venues that will be hosting matches around the country, with New Zealand billing itself as a "stadium of four million" people.
"I think it will be a very extraordinary competition, a very great event in New Zealand because the whole country is behind it," Lapasset said.
"Not just the team, not just the fans, but all four million New Zealanders are behind the World Cup and it will be a very successful tournament."
Former IRB chairman Syd Millar expressed similar sentiments in the South Island tourist city of Nelson where he was on hand to welcome the Italian team who will be based there.
"Each of the last two tournaments have raised the bar and I think they can do it again," he said.
New Zealand is banking on up to 100,000 overseas visitors arriving for the tournament and is looking to their wallets to help an economy that has been hit by the cost of devastating earthquakes as well as the global recession.
"We are expecting 1.3 million tickets sold and that's a good result for New Zealand," said Lapasset.
"It's not at the same level as in France in 2007 because the size of the country is totally different but it's a very, very strong result for the economy."
However, visitor numbers are reported to have been affected by a backlash from rugby fans in neighbouring Australia who are reportedly planning to commute to New Zealand for match weekends rather than pay excessive prices.
"Australians feel it's over-priced in New Zealand, which obviously it is," Mike Jones, general manager of Total Sports Travel, one of two official World Cup travel agents in Australia, was quoted as saying by the New Zealand Herald.
"They should've thought about it earlier. The prices were too inflated, they were too high for the New Zealand market."
Ticket sales remain several million dollars short of the target, which even if reached leaves the country with a NZ$39 million (US$33 million) shortfall in the cost of hosting the tournament.
Figures released late last month indicated nearly 200,000 tickets remained unsold partly because the top-end prices from $390 to $1250 have been deemed too expensive for what New Zealanders are used to paying.
The cheapest tickets, starting at just $15, were mainly for games involving rugby minnows with little or no fan base in New Zealand, prompting former All Blacks captain Buck Shelford to suggest the tournament could be trimmed.
"Let's not kid ourselves that we are about to witness a perfect tournament," he wrote in the Herald.
"The initial weeks will involve a lot of one-sided games with big teams whitewashing smaller ones."
Shelford suggested "an elite competition" of 12 teams with the remainder in a secondary tournament run elsewhere.
© 2011 AFP