WELLINGTON (Reuters) - New Zealand fans starved of live sports will welcome the return of rugby union on Saturday following the coronavirus shutdown, as the Super Rugby Aotearoa competition kicks off and promises to be a war of attrition according to coaches and players alike.
The new domestic competition was organised after the wider Super Rugby tournament, which also involves teams from Australia, South Africa, Argentina and Japan, was postponed due to COVID-19 in mid-March.
All eyes will therefore turn to Dunedin on Saturday when the Otago Highlanders host the Waikato Chiefs in the opening match (kickoff 7:05 pm local time), especially given how physical New Zealand’s Super Rugby derbies have been in the past.
“The players know how tough it is,” Chiefs coach Warren Gatland said on Thursday as he discussed each team playing eight games in 10 weeks. “Players are going to hold nothing back.
“Every game is almost like a trial for higher honours.”
Super Rugby’s return in New Zealand was aided by the country’s success in containing COVID-19, with the government lifting virtually all restrictions this week.
That means it will be the first professional sports league to allow crowds to attend and fans have obliged with both Otago Regional Stadium and Auckland’s Eden Park, where the Blues face the Wellington Hurricanes on Sunday, predicting near sell-outs.
“This is going to be a special occasion that everyone will remember,” Auckland Blues chief executive Andrew Hore said as ticket sales for his side’s clash with the Hurricanes passed 34,000 on Thursday.
Eden Park has a capacity of about 50,000.
The probable Blues debut of All Blacks flyhalf Beauden Barrett against his former team has also driven up fan interest.
“It has been a long time coming,” Barrett told reporters this week. “It’s a game I have played a few times in my head already.
“It is tough. It will be survival of the fittest.”
Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Toby Davis