FOR THE first time in 90-odd days, Eden Park saw packed stands, hugs and handshakes, huddle and high-fives, as the Super Rugby League resumed. A 15-year record crowd poured in to watch the encounter between the Blues and Hurricanes.
Though competitive domestic sport has resumed in different parts of the world without spectators and with stringent regulations — the German and Spanish football leagues, for instance — it was back to pre-Covid days in Auckland, and Dunedin the day before. It looks like this weekend will be no different, either, as New Zealand celebrates its Covid-free status without a single case for close to three weeks, and the rugby moves to Hamilton and Wellington
Celebrate they did last weekend — tickets were discounted, free public transport was arranged, children were admitted free and fans allowed to enter the field after the game. The stands were packed much before the match began, and fans forgot rivalries and shook hands with anyone they saw.
“The match was competitive but it had a friendly vibe to it. It was like it didn’t matter who won or lost. Some of the players were rusty, too. But it just felt good to be out there at a rugby game again. We were all just thrilled, watching a match in the stadium for the first time,” says Ronald Jones, a member of the Blues’ fan group, as his team prevailed over Hurricanes 30-20.
“All around the stadium, there was a celebratory mood, sort of life-affirming, like someone shaking me awake in the middle of a nightmare. It’s a great story to tell your mates that you were at the first rugby game after New Zealanders won the fight against Covid-19,” he says.
After the match, much of the crowd flooded into the turf, clicking selfies and signing autographs from the players, and chatting with some of them. “There were no bouncers smacking our faces when we tried to jump the fence. We were picking autographs from everyone,” says Jones.
But all the standard hygiene measures were in place. Around 50 hand-sanitiser stations were installed. Every five minutes, frequently used surfaces like door handles, lift buttons and handrails were cleaned. Fans were encouraged to purchase tickets online to prevent delays at the box office, and even instructed to sneeze on their elbows.
Similarly, staff and contractors had to complete Covid-screening 48 hours prior to the game, and again upon entry to the venue. New Zealand had been preparing to resume the league with a capped crowd of 5,000, before the country moved to alert level 1, meaning restrictions and mass gatherings were lifted.