Crowds, yes crowds, return to watch Super Rugby in ‘coronavirus-free’ New Zealand


An estimated crowd of 20,000 packed into the Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin Saturday to watch the home side Otago Highlanders host the Waikato Chiefs in the Super Rugby Aotearoa competition.

With barely a face mask in sight and with enthusiastic fans hugging each other with delight when points were scored, it was a successful return to the “normal” for Otago, which beat the visitor 28-27 with a last-gasp drop goal from replacement Bryn Gatland.

To make the victory more sweet, Gatland is the son of Chiefs’ coach Warren, who will take charge of British and Irish Lions on the planned tour of South Africa next year.

Before the match, Gatland, who stood down as Wales coach after the World Cup last year, spoke for many when he told the BBC that “people are pretty buzzed about being able to watch some live sport.”

He was less happy with the result, his side being denied victory after leading 27-25 with only a minute left on the clock.

“I’m not happy that we lost the game but well done to him. I don’t care if he’s my son or not. I’ll go away and have a look at that but I’m still disappointed in the result,” Gatland said.

New Zealand lifted nearly all its Covid-19 restrictions earlier this week as no new coronavirus cases were reported for over 20 days straight and with a relatively low death toll of 22 since the pandemic started.

The Otago Highlanders team line up before the start of the game at the Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin, the first since Covid-19 restrictions were largely lifted in New Zealand.

It paved the way for the return of crowds to stadiums in the rugby-mad country, with the 50,000-capacity Eden Park likely to be full as the Auckland Blues host Wellington Hurricanes in the second match of the weekend Sunday.

The main Super Rugby tournament, which involves teams from Australia, South Africa, Argentina and Japan, was halted in mid-March in response to the global pandemic.

In the interim, New Zealand’s five Super Rugby teams are playing in their own internal Aotearoa, the Maori word for New Zealand, competition, which is being broadcast to a global television audience starved of action with crowd atmosphere.

By contrast, major European football leagues are slowly returning to competitive action behind closed doors: Spain’s La Liga the latest this weekend, with the English Premier League resuming next Wednesday, but without a paying fan in sight.

Taiwan, which has only reported seven coronavirus deaths, has allowed fans into its baseball stadiums, but only to 50% capacity with social distancing gaps between fans.



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