France aims to put on a show as Rugby World Cup kicks off

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France is gearing up to host millions of fans for the Rugby World Cup in a key test of the readiness of venues, transport infrastructure and security ahead of the Olympic Games next summer. 

With France billed as one of the favourites alongside Ireland, South Africa and New Zealand, President Emmanuel Macron will be searching for a patriotic boost after a testing political period. In July, France was rocked by a week of rioting sparked by the police shooting of unarmed teenager Nahel Merzouk, just as the government was trying to move on from months of protests over an increase in the retirement age.

“The team is bigger than individuals. The nation is bigger than each of us,” Macron said during a visit to les Bleus’ training camp this week, as he stood in a circle, arm in arm with the players. “Make us proud and happy.”

Some 2.5mn tickets have been sold, including 600,000 to overseas visitors, for seven weeks of matches across nine cities, including Marseille, Nice, Bordeaux and Toulouse. France, which will be hoping to win their first ever World Cup, kick off the tournament on Friday against New Zealand at the Stade de France in Paris.

While Macron hopes the tournament will spark a rare burst of national unity, French officials are aware they will face intense scrutiny with the Summer Olympic Games 10 months away. The shadow of last year’s chaotic Champions League football final in Paris has intensified planning for the rugby tournament, officials said.

“The image of France was hurt by the Champions League mess, and now it must show it still has the ability to successfully host a big international sporting event,” said Pascal Boniface, head of Paris-based think-tank Iris and an expert on the politics of sport. 

At the final last summer, a flawed transport plan and disorganised security caused dangerous overcrowding around the Stade de France, with police using tear gas on fans. The incident later turned into a diplomatic spat with Britain after France, alongside European football’s governing body Uefa, blamed Liverpool supporters for the scenes.

Interior minister Gérald Darmanin has promised that at least 5,000 police officers will be deployed on match days, and 7,500 for bigger fixtures such as the final in late October. “It’s unprecedented for a sporting event,” Darmanin said.

The official store of the Rugby World Cup at the Place de la Concorde in Paris. The Obelisque de la Concorde and the Eiffel Tower are visible in the background
Paris organisers are getting ready to entertain fans as the interior ministry makes security preparations for the tournament © Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Beyond the security preparations, the tournament organisers intend to put on a show for fans. In Paris, a 40,000-capacity fan zone has been built on the Place de la Concorde that will feature giant TV screens, sporting activities on a mini rugby pitch, concerts and food and drink stalls.

“We wanted a really spectacular location as a backdrop,” said Pierre Rabadan, a former professional rugby player who now heads sports-related matters for the Paris mayor’s office. “It will be a hint of what is to come when Olympics events like skateboarding, breakdancing and three-a-side basketball [are] played in the same place.” 

On the pitch, France will enter the competition ranked third and with home advantage. But Ireland are gunning for their first victory too and, fresh from winning the Six Nations, will arguably be the team to beat.

The Irish face a group-stage test against second-ranked South Africa. That match, along with France’s opener, will be keenly watched for signs as to whether the two European sides have the ability to triumph or if they will be overtaken by New Zealand’s All Blacks and South Africa’s Springboks, the competition’s two most successful nations.

Jonny Wilkinson, a former fly-half for England, said France would be “very difficult to beat”, Ireland were “super physical, super direct” and that both could win the tournament. His last-ditch drop goal won the 2003 World Cup for England — the only northern hemisphere team to have triumphed in the tournament.

“People are rightfully very aware of those two teams especially but also teams like Scotland, who are going to ruin someone’s party for sure,” said Wilkinson, who is an ambassador for World Cup sponsor Capgemini.

The World Cup comes at a time of renewed scrutiny over rugby’s handling of concussions and other injury risks for players, while some leagues such as England’s have suffered dire financial problems. In France, the game has gained in popularity, although its audience and broadcast revenues remain much smaller than football’s.

Rugby union executives hope that holding the tournament in one of the most popular tourist destinations will attract new fans from around the world, including in the underpenetrated US market.

“It’s an absolutely critical juncture for the sport every four years because there are just so many eyeballs engaged,” said Mark Robinson, chief executive of New Zealand Rugby. “So it’s important that it turns up in its best shape and people love it.” 

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