Streets across New Zealand were a blaze of colourful bunting Thursday for what has been billed as a nationwide party in a "stadium of four million" as the Rugby World Cup returns to its spiritual home.
The seventh edition of the sport's global showpiece kicks off Friday when hosts and tournament favourites New Zealand play Tonga before a crowd of 60,000 at Auckland's Eden Park.
The "stadium of four million", denoting the population of the country, has become a catchphrase for the tournament in a land where rugby is the national sport, the public are obsessed by it and it dominates the news media.
"This is the spiritual home of rugby," International Rugby Board (IRB) chief executive Mike Miller said as 600 players from 20 teams fanned out across the country ready for the six-week tourment to begin.
As tournament organisers promised to launch the tournament with a spectacular opening ceremony ahead of the New Zealand-Tonga clash, IRB chairman Bernard Lapasset declared everything was ready.
"The teams are ready. The fans are ready. I have no doubt that this will be a Rugby World Cup that New Zealanders and the global rugby family will be proud of," he said.
"I think the country is ready to have fun. I think we're ready to have a party," added chief organiser Martin Snedden.
Alongside the festivity, however, is the weight of a nation demanding nothing less than total success from the All Blacks who won the inaugural tournament in 1987 and have failed ever since.
Social analysts have theorised another disappointment could affect the economy of the country and an upcoming general election, as well as lead to an increase in domestic violence.
The paranoia surrounding the All Blacks is evident with secret training sessions in grounds surrounded by security screens.
Australia and South Africa, the second and third-ranked sides, are also in near lockdown mode as they prepare for their opening matches on the weekend.
The Australians play Italy in Auckland on Sunday the same day the defending champions South Africa face an immediate crunch game in Wellington against Wales.
Twice runners up France, the top northern hemisphere side, have what should be an easier start against Japan on Saturday while England play Argentina in a crucial Pool B match at New Zealand's first state-of-the-art, roofed stadium in Dunedin.
While the All Blacks aim for the highest ideal, to end years of failure and win the William Webb Ellis Cup for the first time since 1987, the smaller nations have their own ambitions.
Tonga, who ran South Africa and England close four years ago, have set a quarter-final berth as their target, which will mean pulling off an earth-shattering upset over either the All Blacks or France in Pool A.
The islanders have the honour of performing the first tournament haka, a crowd-pleasing cultural challenge, when they face the All Blacks in the opening game with the New Zealanders to respond.
The United States have the tragedy of September 11 as an emotional driver when they play top-tier side Ireland in New Plymouth on the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks.
Four days later they face Russia where the Bears, in their first World Cup, are fired up for for what has been dubbed "the Cold War match".
Japan's target is to win two pool matches for the first time while Samoa's quest is to be recognised among the sports elite nations which will mean pulling off at least two wins in pool clashes with South Africa, Wales and Fiji.
While betting and World ranking both suggest an All Blacks - Australia final the tournament history shows that on only one occasion, 1995, has there not been a northern hemishpere among the final two.
History also holds bad news for the Australian coach, New Zealander Robbie Deans, as in all previous World Cups the coach of the winning team has been a native of the country.
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