Rugby union returned in New Zealand on Saturday with fans, hugs and handshakes as Bryn Gatland scored a last-minute drop-goal winner for the Highlanders against his father Warren’s Chiefs team.
About 20,000 supporters watched on in the near-capacity Forsyth Barr Stadium as the Highlanders beat the Chiefs 28-27 in a thrilling opener to the new Super Rugby Aotearoa tournament.
New Zealand’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in only 22 deaths, and no active cases in three weeks – meaning the social distancing measures enforced in Europe’s returning football leagues were not needed in Dunedin, in New Zealand’s far south.
The fans made noise throughout the game – no need for piped-in crowd noise here – tries were celebrated with embraces and there were handshakes before and after the game.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was among those tuning in
Chiefs coach Warren Gatland, the former Wales boss who will also take charge of the British and Irish Lions in South Africa next year, admitted beforehand that until recently he had thought that playing in front of fans was going to be a “long way off” but his home country’s eradication of the virus had accelerated the return of conventional sport.
Youth over experience as Gatland Jr comes out on top
New Zealand Sports Minister Grant Robertson thanked essential workers for their efforts in a speech before kick-off at a rowdy Forsyth Barr Stadium, but Warren Gatland was unlikely to be thanking his son Bryn on the final whistle.
Gatland Jr, only called up to the bench as a late replacement for Josh Ioane, landed a last-gasp drop-goal to snatch victory, a minute after Damian McKenzie thought his own drop-kick had won the match for the Chiefs.
Bryn Gatland had kept his promotion into the Highlanders matchday squad a secret from his father.
“I found out I was on bench on Thursday,” he told Sky Sports. “I had dinner with dad and mum last night and halfway through he got a text to tell him I was on the bench tomorrow. I didn’t want to give the gameplan away!”
“If anyone was going to do it, it was going to be him,” reflected Warren Gatland on his son’s decisive score.
“I don’t care if he is my son or not, I am still disappointed about the result.”
Ash Dixon and Sio Tomkinson tries had given the Highlanders a 15-6 lead before a converted Sean Wainui try and McKenzie penalty put the Chiefs ahead.
Highlanders’ Marino Mikaele-Tu’u and Chiefs’ Anton Lienert-Brown then crossed before the late drop-kick drama.
World Rugby has announced law changes but Super Rugby Aotearoa’s changes have been for entertainment rather than health reasons with a stricter implementation of the current breakdown laws contributing to a total of 30 penalties being awarded in the match.
The usual Super Rugby tournament, which also featured teams from Australia, South Africa, Argentina and Japan, has been suspended because of the pandemic, so New Zealand’s five teams are playing eight games each between themselves in this new event.