- Associated Press - Sunday, September 4, 2011

WELLINGTON, New Zealand Ox and his mates are hitting the road to watch their beloved All Blacks play in the Rugby World Cup, making a trip they’ve been working on for months.

Shortages of hotel accommodations and reports of high prices for anything still vacant haven’t bothered Ox, Horny, Snapper or Cookie, because they’re traveling in a $3,000 delivery truck they have converted into a makeshift motorhome.

In many ways, the four blokes, all in their 50s, represent the spirit of rugby in New Zealand.

In this isolated nation of 4 million people, rugby has been the most important game for more than a century. It has become entwined with the attributes New Zealanders most value in each other - loyalty, brotherhood, ingenuity and humility. It appeals to a rugged physicality that New Zealanders identify with.

Already the 20 international teams that will compete for the title of rugby world champion have begun arriving in New Zealand.

The tournament, which is held every four years, will include 48 games and run for six weeks starting Friday. Long shots such as Russia and the U.S. will compete against powerhouses such as England and South Africa.

So far, 1.1 million match tickets have been sold - nearly three-quarters of the total available - making it by far the biggest event New Zealand has ever staged.

The country is planning a big party.

On the international stage, rugby doesn’t attract the following of sports like basketball or soccer.

But in New Zealand it dominates. Some 147,000 men, women and children play the game competitively - more than 3 percent of the entire population. The game crosses cultural and economic boundaries.

The roots of its popularity here trace back to the All Blacks 1905-06 tour of Britain, France and North America. The team from the colonial outpost made an impression by winning 34 of 35 matches.

“Winning. That’s how it all came about,” says Ron Palenski, an author and historian who runs New Zealand’s Sports Hall of Fame. “We were a small country, and there were not that many things that we were better at than anybody else in the world. It was established very early on … and it became a rallying point for New Zealand, a point of pride.”

Indeed, the All Blacks continued to dominate. The 1924-25 team became known as “The Invincibles” after winning all 32 of their matches. In all, the All Blacks have won three-quarters of their international games - although they have won just one World Cup.

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