High-profile Auckland Blues recruit Dan Carter will be among those looking on as rugby reaps the reward of New Zealand’s success in achieving zero cases of COVID-19.
Organisers say the competition will be the first professional sport played without crowd restrictions anywhere in the world since the pandemic took hold, although football leagues in Vietnam and Turkmenistan might dispute the claim.
It is certainly the highest profile sport to throw open its doors and its visibility was given an added boost with All Black legend Carter’s shock decision to sign for the Blues at the age of 38, five years after his international retirement.
Super Rugby Aotearoa — the Maori name for New Zealand — is a temporary domestic replacement for the suspended 15-team southern hemisphere club competition, which has been in limbo since mid-March.
Featuring New Zealand’s five Super Rugby teams, the 10-round competition will have two matches each weekend.
The opening fixture Saturday sees Otago Highlanders meet Waikato Chiefs at Dunedin’s Forsyth Barr Stadium, where student fans in “The Zoo” section of the ground are sure to offering full-throated support and generating an electric atmosphere.
The Highlanders’ backline has been boosted by the recruitment of livewire former international Nehe Milner-Skudder, while the Chiefs are missing newly anointed All Blacks captain Sam Cane with a back strain.
– Barrett Blues debut –
The second match on Sunday pits Auckland Blues against Wellington Hurricanes at Eden Park, where the crowd is expected to exceed 35,000.
The Blues are on a high after signing Carter, although the two-time World Cup winner and three-time world player of the year admits he is several weeks away from being match fit.
Even if Carter does not take the field, Beauden Barrett said his presence at training had been “immense”.
“The boost he’s given to the team and me personally, it’s been huge,” said Barrett, himself a two-time world player of the year.
It will be Barrett’s first appearance for the Blues since he transferred from the Hurricanes at the end of last season and Wellington halfback TJ Perenara promised him warm reception from his former teammates.
“I’m sure there’ll be a few words out there but it’ll be in the spirit of the game,” Perenara told reporters.
Barrett will not face off against younger brother Jordie, who the Hurricanes said was nursing a shoulder injury.
The competition has introduced some experimental rule changes that New Zealand Rugby said were designed to add excitement to the game, including a golden point winner in extra-time if scores are level after 80 minutes.
Teams can also replace a player who has been red-carded after 20 minutes, instead of playing the rest of the match down one man.
Referees have also been told to strictly police the breakdown, to ensure a fast-flowing game.