Even though the final decision as to who will host the 2011 Rugby World Cup will not be made until November, the next few weeks will be crucial for the three countries hoping to host sport’s third biggest event.

With an International Rugby Board inspection team about to arrive in Japan, the Japan Rugby Football Union will be hoping things go well both on and off the field in the two test matches the Brave Blossoms are set to play against Ireland on June 12 and 19.

The South Africans, meanwhile, have been dogged by political turmoil over the location of the nation’s fifth team to play in the expanded Super 14.

And although Jake White has named a record five blacks to start in the upcoming test against Uruguay, there are many who believe that until the South Africans can get their own house in order they should not be allowed to host the IRB’S flagship competition.

That leaves New Zealand, which, with due respect to the visiting Irish and the Uruguayans, will have the eyes of the world on it for the next six weeks.

The visit of the British and Irish Lions to the Land of the Long White Cloud is the biggest thing to hit the country in years and will be a true test of whether the Kiwis have the infrastructure to cope with the huge number of fans that follow the “game played in heaven.”

According to estimates by Horwath Asia Pacific Ltd., the tour may generate NZ$250 million ($178 million) of extra spending in the New Zealand economy, with spending on travel, food and entertainment accounting for NZ$120 million.

A further NZ$130 million is expected in future tourism benefits as fans and global television coverage promote New Zealand as a travel destination.

Some 90,000 foreign fans visited Australia for the 2003 Rugby World Cup, and by 2011 that figure is set to rise to 120,000.

And for cities such as Wellington, which hosts the second test and which has only 4,000 hotel rooms, that can only mean problems.

Indeed such is the influx of the British and Irish Lions that one travel company has hired a cruise liner for the duration of the tour to take fans up and down the New Zealand coast to the match venues.

The general consensus is that around 25,000 “Poms” are set to hit New Zealand in the coming weeks and that it will need something of a miracle to stop New Zealand from grinding to a halt.

Former All Black prop John Drake, writing in The Herald on Tuesday, said things went smoothly enough on the weekend when the Lions opened their tour in Rotorua.

However, Lions fullback Geordan Murphy countered that on the BBC Web site, saying that, “we endured a massive traffic jam getting back into Rotorua,” following a visit to a local rugby club on the morning of the game.

And as Freddie Parker, project manager for the “Barmy Army” has said, the main batch of fans will not arrive until the first test on June 25.

“Most people are here by the first test in Christchurch,” he told New Zealand Rugby News.

“For instance, 1,855 camper vans have been booked equating to 7,000 people and 60 percent of them will be picked up in Christchurch. These guys have no tickets for games and they’re coming anyway.”

And it is not just the U.K. and Ireland that fans are traveling from.

“We have one group of around 25 traveling from Tokyo to New Zealand,” said Air New Zealand marketing officer Keisuke Nakai. “And I am sure there are plenty of others traveling by themselves.”

Tokyo resident Simon Ryan is one of those flying down under.

“As a Kiwi, I have to be there,” said Ryan, the president of the Yokohama Country and Athletic Club rugby team.

“The British Lions tour is a celebration of rugby and more of a festival, especially in New Zealand,” he added.

The draw for all the fans is the high quality of rugby on display and the tradition and atmosphere that a Lions tour produces.

“It should be the ambition of every Southern Hemisphere player player to face the Lions,” All Blacks coach Graham Henry told the Observer.

“None of our guys has ever faced them before and with the Lions not coming to New Zealand for another 12 years, they probably won’t get a second chance,” he added, referring to the fact that the Lions only tour every four years and only visit South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

Sharing Henry’s view is former All Black great Grant Batty, currently head coach of Yamaha Jubilo, who played the last of his 15 tests for New Zealand against the 1977 Lions.

“The Lions tours are a special occasion and certainly one of the highlights of my career,” he said.

“The interest in the Lions is enormous because they come from four very good rugby-playing countries.”

For those unable to fly south, JSports is broadcasting the game against the Maori (live), the first test on tape delay and the second (July 2) and third tests (July 9) live.

“We have had significant telephone traffic — similar to the numbers prior to the 2003 Rugby World Cup — inquiring when the games are to played,” said JSports Executive Vice President John Knowles.

“Our viewing figures for both international and domestic rugby have both risen in the last year and indicates a growing interest in rugby in Japan. Part of this is due to the JRFU’s bid to host the World Cup in 2011 and shows an awaking mind in Japan to international rugby.”

The tour may well show that New Zealand has a rugby culture unlike no other — not to mention a team like no other — and Lions coach Sir Clive Woodward is well aware of New Zealand’s passion for the game.

“Rugby means more to the people in New Zealand than anywhere else in the world. I do not underestimate the challenge,” he told reporters before his team flew south from Heathrow.

But the tour may also show that the country is stretched to the limit hosting such a large number of fans, not to mention the hundreds of journalists who are covering the tour.

Only time will tell.

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