Crowds have returned to New Zealand stadiums in earnest over the weekend, with packed houses watching the first two games of Super Rugby Aotearoa in Dunedin and Auckland.
Fans were permitted to attend, unrestricted, due to the New Zealand Government’s announcement on Monday that the country was coronavirus free, with the nationwide alert system relaxing to “level one” at midnight that day.
The Blues announced they had sold out Auckland’s Eden Park on Saturday.
As the Blues kicked off at Eden Park on Sunday, the commentator said the roar was akin to that of a Test match as fans revelled in the return of New Zealand’s national sport in its most populous city.
Fans were treated to a flyover by an air force plane before the match as the celebratory mood blossomed around the stadium.
Pre-game ceremonies at both matches honoured essential workers.
At Eden Park over 43,000 fans, the biggest for a Blues Super Rugby match in 15 years, were in fine voice throughout, creating a carnival atmosphere in the ground.
The majority went home happy as the Blues, buoyed by the optimism surrounding new signing All Black Beauden Barrett secured a 30-20 victory over the Wellington-based Hurricanes — Barrett’s former side.
Meanwhile, on Saturday, about 20,000 supporters roared on the Highlanders and Chiefs under the roof at the Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin.
The fans, including the raucous section of Otago University students standing behind the goal in a section known as ‘The Zoo’ were treated to a thrilling finish as the hosts stole a 28-27 win thanks to a last-minute drop-goal from Bryn Gatland.
That came just seconds after Damien McKenzie put the Chiefs ahead with a drop-goal of his own in a topsy-turvy match that featured five lead changes and a lot of penalties as players adapted to new refereeing interpretations at the breakdown.
“I never imagined the game would be like this,” Highlanders captain Ash Dixon said.
“I think the game had everything and we were lucky to come out on the right side of the ledger.”
That was thanks to Gatland, who, playing just his first match for the Highlanders, was not expected to feature in the match, only being named on the bench late on Friday night when Josh Ioane broke down during the week.
What made the victory even more special for Gatland was that his father, British and Irish Lions coach Warren, was sitting in the opposition dugout.
“I’m not happy about the result,” Gatland senior said.
“But he showed a bit of calmness there, and he’s done that in the past and won games in clutch moments.”
There was a mood of obvious celebration and relief as fans, deprived in lockdown of the shared experience of live sport, were able to return for the first time to a stadium in numbers limited only by the venue’s capacity.
There were no restrictions on their contact; they could hug, high-five, crowd in for selfies. There was no need for masks or social distancing. They could cheer as often and loudly as they wished and they did so enough to make the rafters ring at the indoor stadium.
“I’m so super excited,” one fan told AP before the game in Dunedin.
“I’m really glad to be part of the first crew that’s going to go watch a live rugby game for the world. I think the anticipation is huge.”
The Super Rugby Aotearoa competition is a 10-week competition featuring the five New Zealand Super Rugby teams, the Blues, the Chiefs, the Hurricanes, the Crusaders and the Highlanders.
Australia is hosting its own, five-team Super Rugby-branded tournament, featuring the Western Force, which will kick off on July 3 with the Queensland Reds hosting the New South Wales Waratahs.
Both competitions were set up as a temporary replacement for the international Super Rugby tournament, which was suspended in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.