Possibly the biggest event ever held at Pettigrew-Green Arena has started with the welcoming of about 1600 competitors in the National Secondary Schools Kapa Haka Festival.

The festival, estimated to have brought close to 4000 people into Hawke's Bay for the week, opened with a powhiri lasting more than an hour and a half yesterday.

Locally named Te Haaro o Te Kaahu, the festival, held every two years and this year seen as an entree to biennial national kapa festival Te Matatini in Hastings in February, has attracted 39 groups from as far away Invercargill and Kaitaia and from 14 rohe throughout the country. Some have waited more than a year after claiming their places at their regional finals.

Among the groups is the most travelled, Te Wharekura o Arowhenua, an Invercargill school which, after winning the Southland-Otago regional finals last year enlisted pupils from Southland boys' and girls' high schools and co-educational Invercargill Catholic school Verdon College to boost the numbers, flying 38 performers plus tutors and supporters to Napier for the week.

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Hastings school Te Kura Kaupapa Maori o Ngati Kahungunu ki Heretaunga today opens the four days of competition, with 13 groups performing today, tomorrow and Thursday, the top three from each day qualifying for the finals on Friday.

Yesterday the students, accommodated on marae and in motels around Napier and Hastings, arrived in a fleet of buses using the carpark as a terminus for the week, a carpark also taken over by marquees as the PGA faces its biggest test since opening in April 2003.

Led in by students returning trophies on behalf of schools which won the titles at the last festival in Gisborne in 2014 - including overall aggregate winners and Tainui representative Te Wharekura o Rakaumangamanga, across from Huntly to defend the title - the students filed up the retractable bleachers at one end to fill the seating for about 1000 usually filled only by the biggest of sports events and concerts.

As they entered the auditorium they were challenged with taiaha, haka and waiata from a group of more than 100, with representatives of at least six Hawke's Bay schools, including TKKM Ngati Kahungunu ki Heretaunga and fellow host Te Matau-a-Maui rohe schools Te Aute College and Hastings Boys High School group Te Roopu Manu Huia.

The welcome was led by kaumatua Matiu Eru, Piri Prentice, and Haami Hilton, with six, led by Pakake Winiata, of Ngati Raukawa, responding on behalf of manuhiri, each joined by students filing down for waiata and haka, and ending with most of the auditorium rising as a mass act with Ngoi Pewhairangi waiata Whakarongo.

The powhiri, broadcast live ahead of Maori Television live-streaming through the week, was closed by Ngati Kahungunu Iwi chairman Ngahiwi Tomoana, and the powerful haka Tika Tonu. It seemed the ultimate challenge.