New Zealand ‘buzzing’ for rugby’s return in front of near-capacity crowd

Warren Gatland’s son Bryn, who plays for Highlanders, will miss Saturday’s match against his father’s side

No empty stands, no manufactured crowd noise, no face masks, no social distancing.

The strangest thing about the start of Super Rugby Aotearoa in New Zealand on Saturday will be how normal it all is.

A near-capacity crowd is expected to watch the Highlanders entertain the Chiefs in the first match at 08:05 BST on Saturday morning.

“People are pretty buzzed about being able to watch some live sport,” Chiefs coach Warren Gatland told Radio 5 Live.

Gatland, who stepped down as Wales coach after last year’s Rugby World Cup and will lead the British and Irish Lions in South Africa in 2021, admits that the return to normality has come quicker than even New Zealanders expected.

Super Rugby Aotearoa – opening weekend
Saturday 13 June: Highlanders v Chiefs (08:05 BST)
Sunday 14 June: Blues v Hurricanes (04:35 BST)

“We were still thinking it would be a long way off,” he added. “Initially the plan was to charter planes to fly in at out on the day and play in front of empty stadiums, but New Zealand has done such a great job in eliminating this virus.

“The tournament has created a huge amount of excitement. It is great for the players to get out there and give people what they have been itching for.”

New Zealand has suffered only 22 deaths from coronavirus, compared to more than 40,000 in the United Kingdom, and has not had any active cases in more than three weeks.

While the usual Super Rugby tournament, which featured teams from Australia, South Africa, Argentina and Japan, has been suspended because of the pandemic, New Zealand’s is the first domestic off-shoot to get up and running.

Barrett has been picked at full-back for his Blues debut

In the second match of the opening weekend about 40,000 fans are expected to pack Eden Park to see All Blacks playmaker and Auckland Blues debutant Beauden Barrett against his former club the Hurricanes.

Barrett left the Wellington-based Hurricanes last year to relocate closer to his wife’s workplace in Auckland.

“Undoubtedly there will be some cheeky comments out there,” he said, singling out international team-mates TJ Perenara and Dane Coles as those who may indulge in some trash talk.

“It’s all good fun.”

All Blacks legend and Test rugby’s leading points scorer Dan Carter has signed for the Blues on a short-term deal after his contract with Japanese club Kobelco Steelers expired. However, the 38-year-old has been left out of the matchday squad for the opening round of fixtures.

While World Rugby has announced a raft of rule adaptions that could help smooth the return of rugby, Super Rugby Aotearoa’s law changes have been for entertainment rather than health reasons.

Red-carded players can be replaced from the bench 20 minutes after their dismissal and there will be a tie-breaking golden-point period if the scores are level after 80 minutes.

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