Fans allowed at Super competition after NZ drops COVID curbs

FILE PHOTO: Rugby Union - Italy v New Zealand - Stadio Olimpico, Rome, Italy - November 24, 2018 New Zealand's Beauden Barrett celebrates after the match REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi/File Photo

WELLINGTON (Reuters) - New Zealand Rugby (NZR) said on Monday fans will be allowed into stadiums to watch the opening weekend of its domestic rugby union competition after the country lifted virtually all coronavirus restrictions.

Super Rugby Aotearoa, which involves New Zealand’s five Super teams, is the first professional rugby union competition to resume after governments imposed restrictions to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“We’re incredibly proud, and grateful, to be the first professional sports competition in the world to be in a position to have our teams play in front of their fans again,” NZR Chief Executive Mark Robinson said in a statement.

There would be no restrictions on the size of crowds for the first weekend of matches at Otago Regional Stadium in Dunedin on Saturday and at Eden Park in Auckland on Sunday, NZR added.

Health officials said there were no active infections left in the country and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the government would lift virtually all COVID-19 restrictions at 11:59 pm (0059 GMT) on Monday. [L4N2DL0TX]

The Otago Highlanders host the Waikato Chiefs on Saturday in the first match of the 10-week competition, which was organised after the wider Super Rugby tournament, which also involves teams from Australia, South Africa, Argentina and Japan, was postponed due to pandemic.

Much of the focus will be on Sunday’s game in Auckland where All Blacks flyhalf Beauden Barrett is expected to make his debut for the Blues when they host his former team, the Wellington Hurricanes, at Eden Park.

Barrett, who missed the initial stages of Super Rugby after taking an extended break following last year’s World Cup, moved to the Blues after nine seasons with the Hurricanes.

He had been expected to make his Blues debut against the Hurricanes on April 11 before Super Rugby was postponed in mid-March.

Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Peter Rutherford