Why this Rugby World Cup might be the All Blacks' most important yet

New Zealand's identity has long been shaped by its sports teams.

The ability of Aotearoa, the Shaky Isles, land of the long white cloud, to succeed on the world stage fills a small nation at the bottom of the globe with a glowing sense of nationalistic pride.

Whether it's the Warriors, Black Caps, Olympic and Commonwealth Games athletes, the recent Football Ferns opening match upset at the FIFA World Cup or combat sports stars punching their way to global prominence, New Zealand loves to hop on a bandwagon, sing their song and revel in moments they can puff their chests out.

Kiwis may be flightless birds. But we never miss a chance to wave our beak in the air.

While the sporting market is ever diversifying, particularly when it comes to the groundswell of support for women's sport, the All Blacks remain top of New Zealand's tree. By some distance, too. Nothing else consistently compares on viewership and readership metrics.

Once every four years that interest amplifies with the arrival of the Rugby World Cup. Fleeting or increasingly disenfranchised rugby fans rejoin the devoted diehards in anticipation for another tilt at the pinnacle crown the All Blacks have claimed three times previously.

With the roller coaster ride the All Blacks have endured, this four-year cycle is unlike any other. And in many ways, that only heightens intrigue.

From seemingly down and out, slumping to fifth in the world, sacking two assistant coaches and on the verge of axing Ian Foster, to transforming in the past 12 months, the All Blacks have regained their confidence and rejuvenated public belief that they boast the players and nous to challenge for the ultimate prize.

"It feels like it's been building to this moment for a while," All Blacks captain Sam Cane said. "There's been a lot of anticipation within the squad. Now that it's almost here the overriding emotion is excitement. Excitement for where we're at as a team, how much further we believe we've got to go and for what's ahead.

"We can take a lot of confidence from where we're at as a group and belief that when we get our game right we can beat anyone, and we can dig ourselves out of holes.

"We're in a good spot. We also realise how quickly things can turn and change so we've got to make sure we always keep our feet on the ground and worry about the next performance and maintain the mindset of seeking to improve."

Admittedly, Cane spoke those words before the All Blacks were crushed 35-7 by the Springboks at Twickenham last weekend, but it a first loss in 12 games isn't cause for alarm after the progress the No. 7's charges have made.

From 1987 to 2011 New Zealand's relationships with World Cups could be described as unhealthy. Obsessive, even. Despite being a dominant force for much of that time the 24-year drought between World Cup success sparked a series of ugly public backlashes.

While demanding expectation is woven into the fabric of the All Blacks, on reflection the reaction to some of those grand stage losses were deeply pointed and personal.

Successive triumphs in 2011 and 2015, the latter when the All Blacks claimed their first World Cup abroad with arguably the best team in rugby history, eased the burden.

Yet after their crushing semifinal defeat to England in Yokohama four years ago, the All Blacks arrive in France again seeking redemption. Such a quest will be poignant for the 16 leading figures returning from the 2019 tournament in Japan - and the large playing and coaching contingent set to conclude their Test careers in the coming months, whenever that may be.

For all their improvement the All Blacks' World Cup campaign remains precariously poised - largely due to a ridiculously lopsided draw that places them on a collision course with Ireland, the Springboks or Scotland in the quarterfinal. Winning three elite Tier 1 Tests in a row is a notoriously difficult task, too.

Like many top tier nations, New Zealand's wider rugby landscape is rather precariously placed. Rugby essentially relies on the commercial might of the All Blacks to fund all levels of the New Zealand game - from the grassroots through to the professional arena.

Such a pyramid necessitates the All Blacks remain highly successful - somewhere near the pinnacle of the sport. Selling behind the scenes documentaries, attempting to cash in on untapped overseas fans and partnering with demanding private equity firms becomes much harder if results fall off a cliff. As with any World Cup New Zealand is preparing for an exodus of talent which includes farewelling four centurions - Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Aaron Smith, Beauden Barrett along with other influential players such as Richie Mo'unga and Dane Coles.

Replacing those figures will prove a major challenge for incoming All Blacks coach Scott Robertson next year. Mo'unga's departure in particular is why Robertson, immediately following his appointment for next year, raised the prospect of potentially selecting All Blacks from offshore, only for that suggestion to be quickly shut down -- for now at least.

While Stephen Perofeta, Ethan Blackadder, Patrick Tuipulotu and Samipeni Finau are among those who couldn't crack this World Cup squad, New Zealand rugby's depth isn't what it used to be.

Just ask the Highlanders, who have signed a cohort of developing prospects in a bid to near rebuild from scratch after battling to attract established talent to the southern franchise in recent years.

Pathway concerns are evident elsewhere, too, with the lack of success from the New Zealand under-20s team that finished seventh at this year's World Cup. This in a campaign that featured two losses to Australia.

A team that once provided the backbone for the All Blacks - after winning the tournament four times from 2008-2011 - has won twice since 2015 and missed the semifinals on three other occasions in the last five tournaments.

The future of the national provincial championship - these days the overshadowed third tier of New Zealand rugby's professional ecosystem - is also firmly in the spotlight, with the national body keen to rein in unsustainable spending on player salaries in favour of focusing on development.

With Super Rugby struggling to attract crowds, the NPC doesn't stand a chance. An imminent push to reform that level will, however, evoke an inevitable uproar from the regions that are the heartbeat of the game.

The continued rise of the women's game, and the need to significantly expand Super Rugby Aupiki next year to support the Black Ferns, is yet another pressure point.

At every turn NZ Rugby has more hands out, more hungry mouths to feed, which brings us back to the All Blacks.

Winning the World Cup is a cash cow for any nation. Success on such a stage drives eyeballs which drives revenue and participation spinoffs.

Returning home with the Webb Ellis Cup won't solve all New Zealand rugby's looming challenges. It would, though, enshrine the mystique of the All Blacks that goes a long way to propping up the game and, indeed, creates a strong sense of national identity.