Rugby World Cup Kicks Off in Paris

The Rugby World Cup, held every four years, began Friday in Paris. It's the first time in the cup's 20-year history that it has been hosted by a non-English-speaking country.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

The World Rugby Cup, held every four years, kicked off last night in Paris. For the next six weeks, 20 teams from across the globe will compete in 48 matches to determine the top team. It's the first time in the cup's 20-year history that it's been hosted by a non-English-speaking country. France has pulled out the stops to try to make this year's cup a success.

As Eleanor Beardsley reports, the country has plunged into a kind of collective rugby hysteria.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Millions of viewers tuned in to the opening game of the 2007 World Rugby Cup, which kicked off last night amidst much fanfare in Paris' Stade de France Stadium. Across from the Eiffel Tower, thousands of fans poured into outdoor tents equipped with large-screen televisions to cheer on the home team, Les Bleus, in the opening game.

Parisian Louis Longbua(ph) says there's no way they can lose.

Mr. LOUIS LONGBUA (Rugby Fan, Paris): (Through translator) The popular fervor is with us. The whole country is behind the French team, and I predict we're going to win against New Zealand in the final match. And thanks to this World Cup, rugby will become more popular than ever.

(Soundbite of noisy crowd)

BEARDSLEY: Never mind that Les Bleus did lose to dark horse Argentina, sports announcers were quick to point out that France still had a chance at the title. For weeks, the only thing that has seemed to matter in France is rugby. The French players and coaches have graced the covers of nearly every newspaper and magazine, and the sport has been analyzed and parsed ad nauseam on television talk shows.

(Soundbite of French television show)

BEARDSLEY: Rugby is being touted the last sport free from crass commercialism, but this hasn't stopped the usual array of businesses from cashing in on the cup. French fast food chain Quick has named burgers after players, and Chanel is selling a $3,000 limited edition fashion rugby ball.

Still, fan Laurice Martin(ph) believes rugby's qualities will eventually make it more popular than soccer.

Mr. LAURICE MARTIN (Rugby Fan): Because rugby have nice philosophy about community, courage and friendship. And it's really great. Better than soccer.

BEARDSLEY: Everyone seems so enthralled with rugby that there's been hardly any talk of its violence. The French government has even gotten in on the game. A campaign called Yes, I Speak Rugby aims to encourage rugby fans to learn French during their trip.

Colin Kent(ph), who traveled here with his family from South Africa, says they haven't learned much French but their rugby's okay.

Mr. COLIN KENT (Rugby Fan, South Africa): We know the rugby terms sufficiently well enough to communicate with them. Rugby is a universal language. Everybody knows more or less how to communicate with one another.

BEARDSLEY: Each team plays four different opponent in four pools in the tournament. With France's chances at victory now slightly dimmed, New Zealand and defending champions England, are considered favorites. The U.S. will be the first team to face off against England later today.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

SIMON: This is NPR News.

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