The World Cup Final on Sunday is more than just a game for New Zealanders, it represents a chance to end 24 years of sporting pain and lift the spirits of a nation reeling from a string of disasters, experts say.
Psychologist Marc Wilson said rugby was like a religion for New Zealanders and that when their All Blacks face World Cup nemesis France at Auckland's Eden Park the self-esteem of the entire nation would hinge on the outcome.
While France might accept losing with a disappointed Gallic shrug then move on, the game was so crucial to Kiwis that defeat would plunge the country into a collective sense of mourning, he said.
"We care more about the rugby than other countries because it's one of relatively few areas where a small nation like New Zealand can excel on the world stage," the Victoria University academic said.
"That's why it's got disproportionate importance. The French will be disappointed if they don't win, but they have other things that they can fall back on."
Massey University rugby historian Malcolm Mulholland said the importance of the game to the national psyche was heightened by the fact it was taking place on home soil, the culmination of the largest event ever staged in New Zealand.
In addition, he said it was an opportunity to shed the hated "choker" tag dogging the All Blacks, who have fallen victim to a series of World Cup upsets since beating France, also at Eden Park, to win the inaugural tournament in 1987.
"Over the last 24 years, we've been the most consistent side in international rugby," Mulholland said.
"But we've never been able to knock off the World Cup hoodoo [jinx] that's been with us every four years now since 1987. So there's going to be one heck of a reaction, whichever way it goes."
New Zealand has also endured a spate of disasters in the 12 months leading up to the tournament, foremost among them the Christchurch earthquake in February, which killed 181 people in in New Zealand's second largest city.
There were also two more major quakes in the city, the Pike River colliery blast last November, in which 29 miners died, and an ongoing environmental crisis caused by an oil slick from a grounded container ship.
"Trying times can bring people together and sport can also bond the community in a positive way," Canterbury University sports sociologist Camilla Obel said.
"It's been a difficult period in New Zealand and even non-fans have got behind the All Blacks because there's a feeling they deserve this and a win would cheer people up."
Small wonder then, that New Zealanders' focus on the World Cup has been so intent it borders on obsession.
When star playmaker Dan Carter suffered a tournament-ending injury, such was the national wailing and gnashing of teeth that, amazingly, it was the flyhalf - facing the lowest point of his career - who had to console his fellow Kiwis, urging them to "move on".
Even the country's November 26 general election has taken a back seat to the World Cup, with politicians avoiding baby-kissing campaign stunts in the certain knowledge that no one cares while the rugby is still on.
The fact that the World Cup is slated to make a $NZ40 million (US million) loss has also failed to put a dampener on New Zealanders' enjoyment of the tournament, with locals enthusiastically welcoming 95,000 overseas visitors.
Mulholland said New Zealand's four million-strong population was awaiting the final with a mixture of anxiety and hope.
"I've been touring the country during the tournament and it's really galvanised everyone. Wherever you go, you've got flags, All Blacks banners, kids in face paint," he said.
"We've come through one hell of time and if our boys take out the Cup on Sunday it'll finally be something positive, rather than the doom and gloom we've become accustomed to."
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