By Sarah Bennett and Lee Slater, Lonely Planet authors
If you’re travelling around New Zealand in September and October 2011 you’re either a rugby fan, or run the risk of becoming one.
From the opening kick-off at Auckland’s Eden Park on 9 September, much of the country will be in high spirits as the Rugby World Cup tournament returns to its birthplace. Over the course of six weeks, 20 teams will play 48 matches in 12 stadiums in 11 towns and cities from one end of the country to the other. Not since the 1990 Commonwealth Games has New Zealand had such a chance to show off.
The fact that you don’t know your blind side from your break down will have no bearing on your enjoyment of the tournament, because much of the action will be off the field. The ardent All Blacks fan base will be entertainment in itself, as the lint-roller is zapped over the old black jersey and the masses take to the pubs in their droves. These hijinks will continue right through to the final, even if the New Zealand side gets knocked out (in which case you can expect to see a bit of the ol’ switcheroo in support of anyone but England). It pays to be prepared in these situations: what team might you 'adopt' if (heaven forbid!) your team gets knocked out or didn’t make the cut at all? Namibia and Georgia might be grateful for some extra cheering from the sideline.
Yes, there’ll undoubtedly be a whole lot of 'World in Union' going on as the Land of the Long White Cloud rolls out the grassy carpet to its visitors, expected to number around 70,000. From Northland in the North Island, to Southland in the South, you can guarantee that New Zealanders will be showing their guests that despite a lack imagination in naming their regions, their creativity knows no bounds when it comes to having a good time.
And even those who aren't rugby fans will benefit from the ridiculous number of festivities planned to coincide with the Rugby World Cup. A scrum-load of off-the-ball action has been packed into the Real NZ Festival’s mind-boggling countrywide programme of events taking place alongside the tournament. It includes everything from the predictable (Hard on the Heels: Capturing the All Blacks in Christchurch) to the unexpected (West Coast Whitebait Challenge). Some events will be stylish and über-creative (World of WearableArt, Wellington), while others will be downright cool (Maniatoto Curling Festival). They will illuminate (New Plymouth’s ‘Light by Night’), educate (The Story of Ka Mate, the World’s Best Known Haka), and translate (Style Pasifika). By our reckoning, just about every man and his dog is getting involved, and occasionally even some sheep (Shearing & Wool Handling Championships in Otago).
Don’t for a minute think that Christchurch has been kicked into touch. No sirree! They may have lost their games because of stadium damage after this year's quakes, but their 'Fanzone' in Hagley Park is set to go off. You can guarantee that those flinty Cantabrians will prove that they can still party hard and show visitors a good time.
While it will be essential to book accommodation in towns and cities holding games and on major routes in between, you’ll have more options and get better value if you 'go the long way round'. If you’re looking for budget-end accommodation on the road, don’t forget New Zealand’s holiday parks, located in some spectacular settings.
Oddball obsessives may think that it’s all about the rugby, but there’s much more to this than a game of two halves. With events all round the country, and the Kiwis geared up to welcome you, this will be a great time to tour one of the world’s favourite destinations.
Further reading: check our our New Zealand itinerary suggestions and New Zealand's best spots - as picked by Lonely Planet staff. Not going to make it to NZ? The Thorn Tree forum is chatting about where to watch the Cup around the world.