While top-class sport is slowly returning to empty stadiums and with strict hygiene and social distancing measures in place, rugby union fans in New Zealand have gone back to what everyone hopes will be the future.
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.
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.
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 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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