LONDON • The wait is over, Chris Robshaw leads hosts England out at Twickenham today to play Fiji and kick off the Rugby World Cup that promises six weeks of spectacular record-breaking.
Organisers will get their biggest-ever World Cup revenue - £240 million (S$520 million) - with the 203 countries and territories watching on television setting a new record.
And, on the pitch, New Zealand hope they will become the first team to win back-to-back titles.
Bookmakers are backing Richie McCaw's All Blacks, just ahead of England. But the tournament's 28-year history is littered with the wrecked hopes of favourites.
Robshaw - along with his Australia, South Africa and France counterparts- is among rivals hoping they can pull off an upset in the pressure-cooker atmosphere.
"We are under no illusions as to exactly how big it is going to be," he told the BBC. "But as players, it's about going out there and playing our game, and trying not to get too caught up in the emotion."
England and Fiji will be the immediate centre of attention at Twickenham. But the focus of the 20-team tournament will soon switch to the form of defending champions New Zealand.
The All Blacks have been the game's standard setters for more than 100 years - having won more than 76 per cent of all their Tests and close to 90 per cent since 2012.
Victories over New Zealand are some of the most highly-prized successes in sport. However, no side have won two straight World Cups and even with all their fiery haka ceremonies, the All Blacks have yet to lift the Webb Ellis Trophy on foreign soil. Their 1987 and 2011 triumphs were both at home.
When England last staged World Cup matches in 1999, New Zealand were on the receiving end of one of rugby union's most astonishing results of all time. France, who had been 10-24 behind, recovered to beat the All Blacks 43-31 in front of a stunned Twickenham crowd.
"Definitely the All Blacks are a good enough side to do it," said former New Zealand wing Jonah Lomu, a member of the side who lost to France 16 years ago.
"But whether you do it or not is a different story."
As well as being hosts, there is the added pressure for England of being drawn in the so-called "group of death" that also includes Australia and Wales. The exceptionally strong group means at least one of rugby union's major nations will not make it to the last eight.
The nightmare scenario for the hosts - commercially and in terms of maintaining public interest - is an early England exit.
For England, while playing at Twickenham is very familiar, appearing in a World Cup will be a new experience for many members of Stuart Lancaster's squad. "It's new for me and a lot of the players but we are making it business as usual in terms of our preparation," said prop Joe Marler.
Today's match will be anything but usual for Pacific Nations champions Fiji, a team with plenty of talented players but at the opposite end of the scale to England, whom they have never beaten, in terms of finance and infrastructure.
Coach John McKee has done his best to prepare his side. "We had a little bit of a strategy earlier in the campaign in Fiji, we had a PA (public address) system playing crowd noise and the sounds from Twickenham." Now comes the real thing.
POOL A: ENGLAND V FIJI
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