A capacity crowd packed the Forsyth Barr stadium on Saturday to welcome the return of professional rugby, three months after the sport’s professional tournaments were shuttered by the coronavirus pandemic.
At 22,000 it was a small crowd but momentous for New Zealand and for rugby as fans returned to stadiums without limitation for the first time since the COVID-19 outbreak sent countries around the world into lockdown in March.
Almost 20,000 tickets had been sold before the opening match in Super Rugby Aotearoa between the local Highlanders and the Hamilton-based Chiefs, and walk-ups filled the stadium to its capacity of 22,800 before the kick-off.
University students in the South Island college town were pressed shoulder to shoulder in the enclosure reserved for them and locally known as The Zoo. There were no restrictions on physical contact. Fans could hug, high-five, congregate in groups before and after the match and fill public transport without wearing masks or social distancing.
New Zealand has almost eradicated COVID-19 after shutting its borders and imposing an early and thorough lockdown. There are no active cases and New Zealand has recorded no new infections in 22 days.
That made it possible for crowds to return to professional sport and they have done so with relish. The match between the Blues and Hurricanes in Auckland on Sunday is expected to have a crowd of almost 40,000, the largest for almost 15 years for a Super Rugby match in New Zealand’s largest city.
“It’s amazing to be able to play rugby again before people, our people, a crowd,” Highlanders and All Blacks scrum half Aaron Smith said.
The five-nation Super Rugby tournament, involving teams from Australia, Argentina, Japan, New Zealand and South Africa, was abandoned in March when restrictions on international travel and quarantine requirements made it untenable.
Super Rugby Aotearoa involves New Zealand’s five teams, playing each other home and away over five weeks. Australia will kick off its Super Rugby AU on July 3 and both countries are hoping to have international rugby back in September.