Rugby returns: Highlanders edge Hurricanes in New Zealand

DUNEDIN, NEW ZEALAND (AP) — Mitchell Hunt kicked off the opening match in Super Rugby Aotearoa yesterday and, as he hoisted the ball high, he was accompanied by the roar of the crowd.

It was a milestone moment. For the past three months New Zealand sports stadiums and most of those around the world have fallen silent because of the coronavirus pandemic.

But yesterday a capacity crowd of more than 22,000 pressed into the Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin to watch Hunt’s Highlanders, the home team, beat the Hamilton-based Chiefs 28-27 in a match which had a thrilling finish.

Replacement flyhalf Bryn Gatland, in his first match for the Highlanders, kicked a dropped goal with two minutes remaining to give his team a narrow and unexpected win over the Chiefs, who are coached by his father, British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland.

A few minutes earlier, All Blacks playmaker Damien McKenzie kicked a dropped goal which had put the Chiefs ahead 27-25 in a match which featured five lead changes.

The Highlanders celebrate after scoring their first try against Chiefs in Dunedin, New Zealand. PHOTO: AP

The match was played under new rules allowing for golden point extra time to separate teams locked together at the end of regulation. That wasn’t necessary; instead, one of rugby’s most traditional and under-used scoring forms — the dropped goal — was called on to separate the teams.

McKenzie struck his from close range in the 75th minute to put the Chiefs ahead for the first time in the second half. Gatland then slotted a low dropped goal from around 35 metres to regain a lead the Highlanders were able to defend as the clock ran down.

“I never imagined the game would be like this,” Highlanders captain Ash Dixon said. “I think the game had everything and we were lucky to come out on the right side of the ledger.”

There was a mood of obvious celebration and relief as fans, deprived in lockdown of the shared experience of live sport, were able to return for the first time to a stadium in numbers limited only by the venue’s capacity.

There were no restrictions on their contact; they could hug, high-five, crowd in for selfies. There was no need for masks or social distancing. They could cheer as often and loudly as they wished and they did so enough to make the rafters ring at the 22,800-capacity indoor stadium.

The match marked a new development not just for New Zealand sport or for professional rugby, which has been suspended since March, but for high-profile professional sports leagues.

Yesterday’s game was rugby, but not entirely as it was pre-COVID-19. There were rule variations to make the game more appealing to fans starved of live sport. Those rules, including the introduction of golden point extra time and red card replacements, were groundbreaking but had little impact on the game.

The players were expected to be rusty and to be tested physically in their first match in three months but their fitness held up well and they did their best to produce an attractive spectacle, worthy of an historic milestone. This was a major step back to normality after the forced austerity of the coronavirus era.