New Zealand lifts COVID-19 restrictions; crowds free to attend Super Rugby Aotearoa

Super rugby fans open
Getty Images

Crowds will be permitted to attend the opening round of Super Rugby Aotearoa this weekend, after New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern confirmed the country would shift to Alert Level 1 from midnight Monday [NZT].

In what is believed to be a first since the coronavirus pandemic put most professional sports on hold, there will be no restrictions on the size of the crowd that can attend this weekend’s opening games between the Highlanders and Chiefs in Dunedin (Saturday), and the Blues and Hurricanes in Auckland (Sunday).

New Zealand has not had a new COVID-19 case for 17 days, and there are no longer any active cases of the virus across the country.

“Our goal was to come out the other side as quickly and as safely as we could,” Ardern said on Monday afternoon, “to a place where our borders continue to be our first line of defense but all current rules and restrictions on businesses and services are essentially lifted.

“Today, 75 days later, we are ready.”

While Germany’s Bundesliga football, the Korean Baseball Organisation and various UFC events have all taken place over the past few weeks, none of those sports have been contested before paying spectators.

New Zealand Rugby chief executive Mark Robinson said Monday’s news was a reward for the hard work and sacrifice of the nation’s people, who had originally been forced into one of the world’s strictest lockdowns when the virus first took hold.

“It is a testament to all New Zealanders that we are in a position to lift restrictions on mass gatherings, and it’s a massive boost for Investec Super Rugby Aotearoa,” Robinson said.

“We’re incredibly proud, and grateful, to be the first professional sports competition in the world to be in a position to have our teams play in front of their fans again. It’s going to be a very special and unique competition, and it’s fitting that New Zealanders now have a chance to be part of it.”

Super Rugby Aotearoa is a new domestic New Zealand competition that was set-up after Super Rugby — which includes teams from South Africa, Australia and Argentina, as well as New Zealand — was suspended on March 13.

It will run over 10 rounds, beginning with this weekend’s opening two fixtures.

Monday’s announcement by the New Zealand Government is another boost for Super Rugby Aotearoa, after the Blues last week revealed All Blacks great Dan Carter would join the franchise on a short-term deal.

While Carter won’t play against the Hurricanes on Sunday, the franchise’s other star recruit, two-time World Rugby Player of the Year Beauden Barrett, is expected to make his debut.

Crowds will now likely flock to Auckland’s Eden Park throughout the competition to catch a glimpse of the star playmaking duo.

“This is a great boost for the franchise and the region as a whole,” Blues chief executive Andrew Hore said.

“It’s been a tough time for everyone over the past few months, so to be able to provide some rugby, some entertainment at a world class level and a day out for sports fans and families will be magic.”