Crowds, yes, crowds, are back to watch Super Rugby in New Zealand without coronavirus

An estimated 20,000 people stormed the Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin on Saturday to watch local Otago Highlanders host Waikato bosses in the Super Rugby Aotearo competition.

With a barely masked face and enthusiastic fans embracing each other with delight when the points were scored, it was a successful return to “normal” for Otago, who beat the away team 28-27 times away goal from substitute Bryn Gatland.

To make the win sweeter, Gatland is the son of coaching chief Warren who will take over the British and Irish Lions on a planned tour of South Africa next year.

Before the match, Gatland, who resigned as Wales coach after the World Cup last year, spoke to many when he told the BBC that “people are quite confused when they can watch some sport live”.

He was less pleased with the result, which he was denied a win after a 27-25 lead with only a minute of time on the clock.

“I’m not happy that we lost the game, but he’s done well. I don’t care if he’s my son or not. I’ll go and see it, but I’m still disappointed with the result,” Gatland said.

New Zealand lifted almost all of its Covid-19 restrictions earlier this week, as no new coronavirus cases and a relatively low mortality rate of 22 have been reported for more than 20 days since the pandemic began.

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

He paved the way for the return of crowds at stadiums in a country rugby-mad, with Eden Park with a capacity of 50,000 capacity to be as full as the Uckland Blues hosts hurricanes in Sunday’s second match on Sunday.

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

Meanwhile, five New Zealand super rugby teams play in Aotearo’s own internal competition, the Maori word for New Zealand, which is broadcast to a global television audience hungry from the action with a crowd atmosphere.

In contrast, the major European football leagues are slowly returning to competitive action behind closed doors: the Spanish La Liga no later than this weekend, with the English Premier League continuing next Wednesday but without the fans paying.

Taiwan, which has recorded only seven coronavirus deaths, has let fans into its baseball stadiums, but only up to 50% of its capacity with social distance between fans.

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