Fans pack stands as NZ rugby returns
No restrictions on crowds after country declares itself Covid-free
DUNEDIN, New Zealand: More than 20,000 fans — almost none of them masked — witnessed the Otago Highlanders win a 28-27 thriller against the Waikato Chiefs on Saturday as New Zealand welcomed the return of live sport after the coronavirus.
The highest-profile sports fixture to be staged worldwide since the pandemic — and one of the first with an unrestricted crowd — did not disappoint, as Bryn Gatland’s last-gasp drop goal settled a nail-biter in Dunedin.
Gatland drilled the winning points in the 79th minute, denying the Chiefs — who are coached by his father, ex-Wales boss Warren — after they had snatched the lead with their own drop goal just a minute earlier.
The Super Rugby Aotearoa match was played in a festival atmosphere at the Forsyth Barr Stadium just six days after New Zealand declared itself free of Covid-19.
The government lifted virtually all Covid-19 restrictions earlier this week, allowing a 10-week competition for the country’s five Super Rugby teams to begin this weekend without any limits on crowd sizes.
“Actually being able to watch a rugby game after quarantine, we’ve come a long way since Covid. I think New Zealand’s doing pretty good,” a fan named Jordan told AFP.
As fans flowed through the gates there was no sign of face masks or sanitiser — or the cardboard cut-outs used to fill empty stadiums in other countries where crowds are still barred.
“I don’t really have any health concerns,” said one fan, who gave his name as Peter.
Another spectator, Wendy, said she feared New Zealand would have stayed locked down longer “but I’m happy that we’re not. Nobody’s wearing masks, it’s good”.
South African broadcaster Kaunda Ntunja tweeted: “Watching live rugby with a crowd at the stadium is something I didn’t think I would see anytime soon. I’m bloody happy. I’m sure rugby fans all over the world have the same feeling right now.”
Starved of live sports action for months, fans have also snapped up tickets for the Auckland Blues match against the Wellington Hurricanes on Sunday, with officials putting up the “full house” sign at Eden Park.
The Blues said that by noon local time on Saturday they had sold 43,000 tickets, the capacity set for the match, and there would be no gate sales on match day.
Eden Park can usually seat up to about 50,000.
“It was only a few weeks ago that we were planning for a competition behind closed doors,” Blues chief executive Andrew Hore said in a statement on Saturday.
“This will be a special occasion that everyone will remember and a celebration of what New Zealand has achieved as a nation to get to this stage.”