South East Wales

Rugby League World Cup opens at Millennium Stadium

Martin Offiah and Erin Boag
Image caption Rugby league legend Martin Offiah shows some silky moves with his former Strictly dance partner Erin Boag

The Rugby League World Cup has been launched with a spectacular opening ceremony in Cardiff.

Around 1,500 performers took part in the event at the Millennium Stadium ahead of the first two matches.

Fireworks, dancers and former rugby stars Martin Offiah and Gareth Thomas were among the attractions.

After the ceremony Australia beat England 28-20 in the opening match, followed by Italy's 32-16 victory over Wales in front of a 45,052 fans.

It was a record opening day crowd for the event, beating the 41,271 who saw England beat Australia at Wembley in 1995.

Strictly celebration

As part of the pre-tournament celebrations, 500 dancers drawn from communities in Wales and south west England took to the pitch.

They were joined by two World Cup ambassadors - rugby league legend Martin Offiah and former Welsh rugby union captain and rugby league convert Gareth Thomas.

Offiah - who finished fourth in the first ever series of BBC TV's Strictly Come Dancing - linked up with another former Strictly competitor, TV presenter Gethin Jones.

They paired up with their original dance partners - Erin Boag and Camilla Dallerup - as part of the opening ceremony, which is part of a wider £1m arts dance project.

"I might take a little grief from the fans, but it should be good fun," said the former Wigan, Widnes and England winger Offiah before the event.

Harpist Catrin Finch and classical-pop quartet Escala were also involved in the extravaganza under the closed roof of the Millennium Stadium.

Image caption Fourteen nations are represented at this year's Rugby League World Cup

First Minister Carwyn Jones said it was a privilege to be at the opening event.

"I'm delighted to play a part in the opening ceremony which takes place at the Millennium Stadium - this is the only time all 14 participating nations will unite during the World Cup," he said.

"The double header at the Millennium Stadium will be another landmark event for Wales during this tournament," he added, referring to the two opening games taking place at the venue on Saturday.

"The World Cup will not only provide an opportunity for us to involve our local communities, but will also hopefully encourage increased participation in the sport by people of all ages and abilities."

Image caption The Rugby League World Cup - famously, once stolen in 1970

Wales will host two other games, with the national side taking on the USA at Wrexham's Racecourse ground on 3 November, and the Cook Islands at the Gnoll, Neath, on 10 November.

The tournament's opening ceremony on Saturday marked a massive weekend for the Welsh capital, which is also hosting the Womex world music trade fair and festival.

Some 2,500 delegates have been attending the event which opened with a special concert staged by singer Cerys Matthews on Wednesday and runs until Sunday.

One issue that has cast a shadow over the weekend's events is a decision by Network Rail to close the Severn Tunnel for maintenance work.

It means trains between Bristol and Newport are being replaced by bus services. It also means that services from London will be diverted between Swindon and Newport, with an extra hour added to journey times.

Last week, the first minister criticised Network Rail for carrying out the works at such a busy time for the Welsh capital.

However, Network Rail said it had previously postponed the maintenance, which was vital to future services.

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