Wellington - Rugby-mad New Zealand awoke to its "worst nightmare" with news that the All Blacks' star playmaker Dan Carter was out of the Rugby World Cup, local media reported.
"Day of heartbreak" ran the New Zealand Herald's front page headline following confirmation that Carter had been sidelined for the rest of tournament after picking up a groin injury at training on Saturday.
The Dominion Post posed the question "Can we do it without Dan?" on its front page, highlighting Carter's importance to New Zealand's dream of ending its 24-year World Cup drought on home soil.
"An all black cloud of uncertainty descended nationwide" after the flyhalf's injury, the newspaper reported.
Carter, 29, is adored in New Zealand, where rugby union has been likened to a religion for the country's four million inhabitants - his face stares down from billboards and appears constantly on television advertisements.
He is so popular that national television stations broke into regular programming on Monday for a live broadcast of a press conference where Carter discussed his injury.
While Carter's personal disappointment at missing out on a tournament offered him potentially the crowning achievement of his career was acknowledged, there was also angst about what his loss meant for the All Blacks' prospects.
Former All Black Justin Marshall said New Zealand had dropped from being red-hot favourites to "possibly equal with the pack".
"With Carter, they had a world-class asset that made them odds-on to win the World Cup," he wrote in the Dominion Post.
"Now, they're still among the contenders but have suffered a favouritism setback."
New Zealand Herald rugby columnist Chris Rattue agreed, describing Carter's injury as a "total disaster" that would give heart to the All Blacks' rivals.
"The All Blacks have plummeted from firm to slight favourites and, vitally, their opponents will smell blood," he wrote.
"They will sense sport's most famous chokers have, once again, put a hand to their own throats - and for once we're not talking about the haka."
There was sympathy too from across the Tasman, with Australia's former World Cup-winning skipper John Eales saying there was "no joy in Carter's departure".
"He is a rugby super-star and the tournament will be the poorer for his absence," Eales wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald, adding that the All Blacks' response to the setback would be crucial.
"It will be a true test of their mettle - but one that may galvanise rather than destroy them."
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