A hush settles over our group as we line up in the dimly-lit tunnel. A cool breeze blows in off an imaginary field and the steady roar of the crowd grows. We wait, anticipation building, until the doors finally open and we emerge to face one of sport's most arresting pre-game spectacles.
"Ka mate, ka mate! Ka ora, ka ora!" bellows a muscular wall of foot-stomping, thigh-slapping All Blacks.
New Zealand's national rugby union team has been performing the Ka Mate haka, a traditional Maori war dance, before its matches since the early 1900s. Until the mid-1980s, it was often an uncoordinated affair, a far cry from the choreographed display of eye-bulging, tongue-flaring fury it is today. Watching it in 6K resolution on a four-metre-high screen is confronting enough; facing it in real life must be downright terrifying.
This immersive video is the goosebump-inducing crescendo of the All Blacks Experience, an attraction that opened in Auckland's SkyCity complex in December. Comprised of a 45-minute guided tour through four themed zones, followed by 30 minutes' free time in an interactive play area, it showcases the rich heritage and impressive achievements of the country's two national rugby union teams.
The first zone features a swirling mural with the names of all 1192 players to have donned an All Blacks shirt (this year's six new caps will be added soon). Opposite is a timeline with coloured pegs representing every game played by both the All Blacks and the women's national team, the Black Ferns.
If you thought the All Blacks' three world championships and 77 per cent winning record was impressive, the Black Ferns have won five world cups and have never lost to Australia.
For the next zone, our guide divides our group of eight into two teams and we battle it out on computer simulations that test our reflexes, strategy and mental resilience. Needless to say, the team with the most kids wins.
After watching a montage of historic footage in a mock-up of a provincial rugby club (complete with old- fashioned Axminster carpet), we move into a modern locker room for an unexpectedly moving presentation. Displayed on a screen in each booth is a video where legendary All Blacks including Ian Kirkpatrick and Kieran Read talk in emotional terms about the pride, responsibility and honour that accompanies playing for your country. "Man, I'm just grateful," sums up prop Angus Tā'avao.
After facing down the haka, we finish in the Step Up zone, where there's the opportunity to test our passing, kicking and line-out skills under the video direction of notable players. The less said about my performance in each of these the better, but I do manage an unexpected win over my All Blacks-adoring Kiwi dad in the Superfan quiz challenge.
All in all, the attraction – much like the team – is slick, polished and endearingly humble. Even if you're not a die-hard rugby fan, there's enough interaction and emotive storytelling to keep you entertained.
On the way out, we pass a glass case containing the Bledisloe Cup, the trophy awarded to the winning team of the annual three-match series between Australia and New Zealand.
With the pandemic directing the fixture, the first two legs of this year's competition have taken place at Auckland's Eden Park; Australia hasn't beaten the All Blacks there since 1986 and nothing has changed on that count this year. But the beauty of being an Australian with Kiwi heritage is that I get to celebrate whichever team wins.
Air New Zealand flies direct from Sydney and Melbourne to Auckland. Phone 13 24 76. See airnewzealand.com.au
Level 4, 88 Federal Street, Auckland. Tours run at regular intervals between 9:30am and 5pm every day except Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Adults $NZ45, children $NZ25. See experienceallblacks.com
Rob McFarland was a guest of the All Blacks Experience.