Shoulder to shoulder, New Zealand rugby fans cheer the return of crowds to live sport

“This is what we’ve been waiting for! This is what we’ve been waiting for!” yells a young rugby fan as he plunges his shoulder into the stampede in front of him.

Rugby has returned to New Zealand – but unlike in other countries where professional sport has begun to be played inside empty stadiums, last night almost 20,000 fans packed into the Forsyth Barr stadium in Dunedin to watch local favourites the Otago Highlanders take on the Waikato Chiefs.

For rugby fans in New Zealand it marked the perfect end to a week celebrating the lifting of all coronavirus restrictions after Jacinda Ardern’s government declared the nation virus-free.

At the Forsyth Barr stadium there was a huge crush of people heading through a thin corridor to get to “the Zoo”, a section of the stadium specifically catering to Dunedin’s raucous student population, where social distancing was officially off the cards.

“It’s all anyone was talking about all week,” said Zach Langbridge, a student at the city’s University of Otago. “Lots of my other mates finished our semesters yesterday so this is the first time for us to all get together and have fun.”

New Zealand has taken Covid-19 from 1,366 active cases down to zero today, and with sport back on the agenda, Langbridge commemorated the occasion with an arm around his friend’s shoulder and triumphant finger pointed at the camera.

Fans put social distancing behind them at the Forsyth Barr stadium on Saturday. Photograph: Marty Melville/AFP/Getty

He and his friends shared their beers freely, two to a glass, apparently immune to the viral paranoia that’s been plaguing the country and the world for the last several months.

“I’m not too worried who wins. I’m just happy to not be stuck in my cold flat,” said Alana Nancarrow, an international student at Otago University.

For the more serious fans who made up the majority of the 19,100 people in the packed stadium, this was a chance to once again indulge in live sport after being deprived for months. Where reruns of old games were previously the only rugby entertainment available, the crowd clearly relished the joy of an uncertain outcome, audibly gasping at the slightest chance of a Highlander opportunity and rising quickly to their feet to celebrate every successful move.

“I’ve been a fan my whole life, so it’s been really weird not being able to tune in this time of year. It’s feeling like things are really coming right that I can be here watching this today,” said Tony Smith, a long time Highlanders fan.

The virtues of live sport were on full display in the waning moments of the clash, with visiting Chiefs taking the lead, only to have the advantage snatched back in epic fashion as the Highlanders’ Bryn Gatland scored a drop goal to win the match.

Fans wearing Chiefs and Highlanders shirts could be seen hugging in the stands. Loyalties were muddling after months uniting against a common enemy. As thousands of excited fans spilled into the frosty Dunedin night, normality – or some brand of it – was returning to New Zealand.

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