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Rugby returns: Highlanders edge Hurricanes in New Zealand

DUNEDIN, New Zealand (AP) — Mitchell Hunt kicked off the opening match in Super Rugby Aotearoa Saturday 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 on Saturday a near capacity crowd of more pressed into the 22,000-seat 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 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 meters 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 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 for high-profile professional sports leagues. Saturday’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.

Four lead changes before halftime kept fans on their feet, while 21 penalties in the first 60 minutes and two yellow cards against the Highlanders kept even the best-informed fans guessing. Tries to Dixon from a rolling maul and Sio Tomkinson from a quick exchange of short passes helped the Highlanders to a 22-16 lead at halftime.

The Chiefs closed the gap to one point, 25-24, with a try to Anton Lienert-Brown in the 72nd minute and McKenzie’s dropped goal game them a lead within sight of fulltime. Gatland played his vital late role to snatch the game away from his father’s team.

New Zealand has almost eradicated COVID-19 after shutting its borders and imposing an early and thorough lockdown. There are no active cases and New Zealand has recorded no new infections in 22 days. That made it possible for crowds to return to professional sport and they have done so with relish. The match between the Blues and Hurricanes in Auckland on Sunday is expected to have a crowd of almost 40,000, the largest for almost 15 years for a Super Rugby match in New Zealand’s largest city.

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