Rugby World Cup teams gather across France ahead of tournament’s start this week

PARIS (AP) — The All Blacks perform the haka at a cemetery in northern France as a tribute to soldiers from New Zealand killed during World War I.

Fiji’s squad gather on a stage in the center of a town in the Bordeaux suburbs to sing a song for the locals.

Ireland’s players spread out on a training field in Tours and do the Viking Thunder Clap — made famous by Iceland at soccer’s European Championship in 2016 — in front of 12,000 people at an open practice session.

And Wales players are treated to a royal welcome at Versailles, once home to Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette.

With the start of the Rugby World Cup only days away, the participating teams have arrived in villages, towns and cities across France and are finalizing their preparations for the tournament.

“It was 200 years ago that our sport was born,” World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont said Monday, “and there can be no better place to celebrate our birthday than here in France.

“We’ve received incredible support from the highest office to the smallest villages. Never has a nation been so ready and so excited to host.”

Beaumont said about 600,000 overseas fans will be traveling for the tournament that is being held in France for the second time, after 2007. It marks the start of a big year of sports in France, which is also hosting the Olympics and Paralympics in Paris in 2024.

L’Equipe newspaper reported that several hundreds of fans gathered at the Versailles town hall to wait for the bus carrying the Welsh players and their coach, Warren Gatland. They then attended a welcome reception.

“I know my French isn’t perfect, but if you can be patient with me, it’ll be easier,” Dan Biggar, who plays for French club Toulon, was quoted as saying in the local language.

“It’s a great honor for all of us to be here, to come and play in a World Cup,” he said. “I think this World Cup is going to be incredible. I’ve said that to all the players. France is a special place, there are lots of big stadiums, very beautiful cities, the people are very nice, the French are like the Welsh, except for the language. We can’t wait to start the tournament.”

Organizers said 1.8 million tickets have been sold to date, with 55% of them going to French fans who hope to see Les Tricolores win the World Cup for the first time. France plays the opening match of the tournament against New Zealand at the Stade de France outside Paris on Friday.

“This French team has the ability to put a smile on the face of the nation, to excite, to show that we can be united — that we can be a nation, to use the words of the president of the republic,” said Florian Grill, president of the French Rugby Federation. “It’s the most wonderful mission of all, and you can see that the players and staff are completely committed to it. They understand it is so important for the country.”

Amélie Oudéa-Castéra, France’s Minister for Sport and the Olympic and Paralympic Games, did not reveal the full details of the security plan devised by police but said 5,500 security personnel will be deployed every day of the tournament.

“On some days, there will be 7,000,” she said. “They will complement the 5,000 private security guards in the stadiums of the nine host cities for the duration of the competition, as well as resources organized by local authorities themselves to provide security in the ‘fan zones’ that will be the Rugby Villages.”

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