Kick start

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 October, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 October, 2003, 12:00am

Rugby's giants have come to the land Down Under. It's time to get it on.


England and New Zealand go into the tournament with the two best recent records and are firm favourites to make the final.


But Australia, South Africa, Ireland and France won't let that happen without a fight.


Home advantage means everything to Australia, and as ESPN Star Sports commentator Justin Sampson says: 'Eighty per cent of Test matches are won at home.'


Australian Sampson is picking Australia to win, his Kiwi colleague at Star, Shane Howarth, is picking New Zealand, and none of the South China Morning Post's panel of experts is picking England.


But nonetheless there are some mouth-watering matches in prospect, none more so than today's opening encounter between Australia and Argentina that has bruises written all over it.


Other pending pool games that catch the eye include France against Fiji tomorrow, Italy v Tonga on October 15, England v South Africa on October 18, New Zealand v Tonga on October 24, France v Scotland on October 25, South Africa v Samoa and Australia v Ireland on November 1 and New Zealand v Wales on November 3.


See overleaf for our pin-up tournament schedule of matches, times and venues leading up to the November 22 final in Sydney. We have also included some suggestions for choice Hong Kong watering holes in which to catch all the action.


For anyone still thinking of making the trip Down Under, the news from the Australian Rugby Union is that it has sold 1.8 million tickets - 83 per cent of capacity - meaning there are still some 400,000 unsold.


As things stand, all tickets have been sold to the second quarter-final in Brisbane on November 8, the two semi-finals on November 15 and 16 in Sydney and the final, also in Sydney.


In all, there are 8,000 tickets left to the fourth quarter-final in Brisbane, 13,000 to the first quarter-final in Melbourne and about 20,000 to the third quarter-final, also in Melbourne.


The union says more tickets are likely to be made available for all these matches at the beginning of November as it receives handbacks from the International Rugby Board (IRB), and it is expecting late purchases as fans wait to see which teams meet and when.


For all the latest ticket information check out the union's official site on www.rugby2003.com.au.


Regarding flights, Qantas is offering special fares for passengers travelling from Hong Kong to various destinations in Australia, but all tickets must be issued by October 18. Fans can take day-time round trips to Sydney or Melbourne for $4,190. There are also returns to the Gold Coast, Cairns, Adelaide and Brisbane and evening flights from Hong Kong to Sydney or Melbourne for $5,190.


Cathay Pacific is also offering special deals, with the sales period similarly running until October 18. A round-trip to Melbourne on new flight CX135 will cost $4,200, or CX flights to all other Australian destinations are $5,260.


Meanwhile, Australian police have issued reassurances over the levels of security at the tournament, and report that they have received no terrorist threats, and say that international intelligence suggests the risk is very low. Assistant Police Commissioner Chris Evans, head of the Rugby World Cup command centre in Sydney, said there would be a visible police presence at all the games across the states and territories involved, both mounted and on foot, with air and sea support on hand.


'We are confident of our security operations and have used the commonwealth intelligence agencies at our disposal. We're looking forward to a good tournament,' Evans said.


For anyone looking to make a fast buck, the Hong Kong Jockey Club will not be taking any bets on the cup. Football betting may be legal now, but rugby doesn't qualify.


Still, there are better ways to spend your money. For the 2003 tournament the IRB has teamed up for the first time in its history with a non-profit organisation, the World Food Programme (WFP), to run an awareness campaign. The charity organisation is the food-aid arm of the United Nations and the world's biggest humanitarian agency. It relies mostly on voluntary contributions from governments and the private sector. Last year it fed 72 million people in 82 countries, and this year aims to reach 110 million.


Michael Huggins, WFP spokesman, said: 'Our World Cup campaign is primarily to raise awareness of the 800 million people who live with chronic hunger and poverty every day of their lives. We are facing funding shortages all over the place. To transport food we use ships, planes, trucks, elephants, donkeys, yaks, you name it. We try to reach people no matter where they are.'


For more information on the campaign and to make a donation you can log on to tacklehunger.com.


Meanwhile, sit back, relax and prepare for a gruelling diet of 48 matches over the next 44 days - an irresistible recipe of pride, passion and pundits. Follow the progress of your teams with our chart, and don't miss the Post's match reports from tomorrow through to the final.