New Zealand hails Covid-free days with record rugby crowd

rugby in newzealand amid covid19

For the first time in his four years as in-charge of the iconic Eden Park in Auckland, Nick Sautner says he witnessed a near-stampede at the turnstiles last Sunday. A 15-year record crowd of 43,000 poured in for the Super Rugby encounter between the Blues and Hurricanes, though Sautner says the atmosphere was so electric that he felt it was twice that number.

“Has to be one of the best nights at this famous ground…One of the most historic, too,” he says.

Though competitive sport has resumed in different parts of the world without spectators and with stringent regulations — the English, German and Spanish football leagues, for instance — it was back to pre-Covid days in Auckland, and Dunedin the day before.

It looks like this weekend will be no different, either, as New Zealand celebrates its Covid-free status without a single case for close to three weeks and the rugby moves to Hamilton and Wellington.

“It’s the effort of 5 million people who managed to defeat the pandemic. It’s time to celebrate,” says Sautner.

Celebrate they did last weekend — tickets were discounted, free public transport was arranged, children were admitted free and fans allowed to enter the field after the game. The stands were packed much before the match began, and fans forgot rivalries and shook hands with anyone they saw.

“The match was competitive but it had a friendly vibe. It was like it didn’t matter who won or lost. Some of the players were rusty, too. But it just felt good to be out there at a rugby game again. We were all thrilled, watching a match in the stadium for the first time,” says Ronald Jones, a member of the Blues’ fan group, as his team prevailed over Hurricanes 30-20.

“All around the stadium, there was a celebratory mood, sort of life-affirming, like someone shaking me awake in the middle of a nightmare. It’s a great story to tell your mates that you were at the first rugby game after New Zealanders won the fight against Covid-19,” he says.
After the match, much of the crowd flooded into the turf, clicking selfies and signing autographs from the players, and chatting with some of them. “There were no bouncers smacking our faces when we tried to jump the fence. We were picking autographs from everyone,” says Jones.

But Sautner stresses that all the standard hygiene measures were in place. “Around 50 hand-sanitiser stations were installed. Every five minutes, frequently used surfaces like door handles, lift buttons and handrails were cleaned. Fans were encouraged to purchase tickets online to prevent delays at the box office, and even instructed to sneeze on their elbows,” he says.

Similarly, staff and contractors had to complete Covid-screening 48 hours prior to the game, and again upon entry to the venue. “We put every step in place to ensure that we don’t get another wave of infection,” he says.

New Zealand had been preparing to resume the league with a capped crowd of 5,000, before the country moved to alert level 1, meaning restrictions and mass gatherings were lifted.

But the days leading up to that Sunday — when the league resumed after 90 days — were chaotic. “We had less than a week to prepare. So it was like a storm coming announced, though I would say we were not completely unprepared, and we worked our heart out,” says Sautner.

“We were working with a skeletal staff, and we had to get the park back after three months in hibernation, making sure there was food and beverage, and everything was in order and working condition,” he says.

“Even the turf was far from being in perfect shape,” says Sautner. But as turf manager Blair Christiansen jokes: “It finally had time to breathe.”

Today, Sautner and Christiansen are happy that all the hard work has paid off. And the talk is all about rugby weekends — or, as Saunter says, “Covid-free days.”

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