Four and a half million New Zealanders – or, at least, a good percentage of them – woke up this morning thinking: "This is it."

Twenty-two more of them will have woken up thinking much the same thing. But for those 22, who will line up for the All Blacks against France in the Rugby World Cup final, they actually have to go and do it.

The others can just watch, and cheer, and pray.

Four hours from kickoff, Auckland is already rocking. Literally. A few yards away from where I'm trying to get my head down to write this, a military band in red coats is banging out Journey's Don't Stop Believing in front of a crowd next to the Town Hall.

Thousands of supporters, most of them wearing the famous shirt of the All Blacks (at $190 New Zealand dollars each, Adidas will be delighted), are already walking the 4.5km fan trail from the city centre up to Eden Park, where kickoff is at 9pm local time on Sunday.

Bernie Bonnington, 52, who bought final tickets for himself, wife Angela and son Brad a year ago, summed up the feelings of most Kiwi rugby fans.

"This is the best day of my life – or it will be when we win," he said, saying he had "no doubt" about victory.

"It will just be awesome."

This isn't just a rugby match. The sport is a big part of life in New Zealand. Like anything about which people have a passion, it can bring joy no matter what is happening in real life.

Spirit of rugby

Rugby is a huge part of every community here. Children are raised on it, and have it with them for life. In New Zealand, you meet countless exceptional people, within whom the spirit of rugby is almost a guiding light for themselves and others.

Maybe I'm getting too poetic. But that's been my experience since I first arrived, down in Dunedin, on August 31.

Amy Waetford, 29, from the tiny lakeside community of Wanaka in the South Island's mountain region, was making her way up Queen Street towards the stadium dressed as a rugby player, complete with black perm and moustache.

"It's a good example of national solidarity, getting united on something that doesn't involve politics. It's raising our spirits and our national pride," she said.

"I'm not a big rugby fan, I'm just getting stuck in because it's good for our nation.

"It will be huge if we win. New Zealand's funny in a way because we expect to win – it will be, 'Great, guys – pat on the back.' But if we lose there will be national depression."

What is at stake for the All Blacks is a first Rugby World Cup in 24 years, and a first one since the sport became professional and since the tournament became a serious matter.

The team is the best in the world. Their win ratio is astonishing – in his 65 Test matches as captain, Richie McCaw has won 57 of them – and they play a style that every nation in the world would like to emulate.

Pack mentality

France are sometimes capable of that style, but have usually won the games that matter with a pragmatic, physical approach built on the foundations of their forward pack.

A fleet-footed wing or centre bursting for the line may give that sudden spike of adrenaline that is the main reason why we watch sport, but the bruising grind of the scrum and the ruck is the platform.

France are in their third World Cup final, and still have cause to hope for a first Web Ellis Cup win.

"For us, the Blacks are the team we support when we don't support France," said Parisian Pierre Batifoix, 36, who was keen to point out that his family are from the rugby heartlands in the south-west of France.

"Whenever we see men in black come from the other side of the world playing their rugby, we want them to win. But now that they are against us, I'm for France.

"If we win it will be very sad for the Blacks and for the Kiwis.

"If we win we will be very happy for France, but if we lose we will be very happy for them."