While England and Fiji’s players went through their final preparations in the bowels of the famous arena, more than 80,000 noisy fans marvelled at an opening ceremony played out on a Twickenham pitch dressed to appear torn up by giants.
Lights dimmed as deafening fireworks exploded into the London night sky and drummers thundered their beat around the cavernous arena.
An enormous rugby ball sat centre stage among the huge clods of earth and turf, and was flanked by 20 former greats representing each of the World Cup’s 20 finalist nations.
The loudest cheer from the excitable crowd was reserved for Martin Johnson, England’s World Cup-winning captain in 2003, who appeared last on a plinth raising a ball triumphantly skywards in his bear-like grip.
A stirring rendition of the tournament anthem ‘World in Union’ roused the capacity crowd further as they eagerly counted down the minutes to the first kick-off of the 48-match tournament.
“In six weeks’ time one team will take its place in history,” Britain’s Prince Harry said, prompting another huge roar from the crowd.
“It is up to us to raise the roof in each match on this unforgettable journey.
“We are ready — game on!”
World Rugby head Bernard Lapasset declared the event open with the words, “Let the tournament begin”, as dozens of workers sprinted onto the pitch to clear the playing surface for the Fijian and England players due to kick off in less than 30 minutes’ time.
Almost half a million tourists are expected to visit Britain for the tournament, whose four dozen matches involving 20 teams will take in traditional rugby venues like Cardiff and Gloucester, but also football grounds in Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle.
The six-week event is being billed as the first billion dollar rugby festival.
More than 2.2 million tickets have been sold, and the tournament is expected to contribute some 869 million pounds to Britain’s economy.
New Zealand open the defence of their title on Sunday against Argentina at Wembley Stadium.
(Editing by John Geddie)