Crowded house: New Zealand's Super Rugby opens gates to fans

Fans will be allowed at this weekend's Super Rugby Aotearoa games in New Zealand

Wellington (AFP) - Fans will be allowed to fill stadiums when top-flight rugby resumes in New Zealand this weekend, organisers said Monday, hailing the move as a world first after professional sport's coronavirus shutdown.

New Zealand Rugby made the announcement after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern eased a range of virus-related restrictions, meaning social distancing requirements no longer apply.

It means packed stands are expected when New Zealand's Super Rugby teams open a domestic series, a temporary replacement for the suspended southern hemisphere competition, on Saturday.

"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 Mark Robinson said.

"It's going to be a very special and unique competition and it's fitting that New Zealanders now have a chance to be part of it."

While many other sports competitions around the globe have announced plans to restart, the vast majority will be played either with no crowds or numbers severely restricted.

Some competitions have placed cardboard cutouts in seats to make the grounds appear less empty, and broadcasters have piped in canned crowd noises in a bid to create a big-match atmosphere.

Super Rugby Aotearoa, involving New Zealand's five provincial teams, was originally slated to go ahead behind closed doors, starting with Otago Highlanders against Waikato Chiefs on Saturday.

Instead, when it kicks off under the roof at Dunedin's Forsyth Barr Stadium, the raucous support from home fans in "The Zoo" section is sure to generate an electric atmosphere.

'World will be watching'

Highlanders chief executive Roger Clark said the South Island club was "buzzing" at the prospect of hosting the Chiefs in Saturday's opener.

"The world will be watching and we will be ready to put on a show," he said. 

"Our players, coaches and staff have been working overtime to get Super Rugby Aotearoa ready and to now be able to share the competition with our members and our fans will be a very special occasion."

Tickets for the match went on sale immediately after Ardern's announcement.

The response on the Highlanders' Facebook page was enthusiastic, with one fan pledging to fly south from Wellington for the match. 

Spectators are being encouraged to use mobile phone apps to record their locations in case an unexpected virus infection requires contact tracing, although it is not compulsory.

New Zealand, with a population of five million, had 1,154 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 22 deaths.

While domestic restrictions have been eased, strict border controls remain in place. 

Australia, which has also enjoyed success containing the coronavirus, will start a competition between its four Super Rugby franchise teams and the Western Force on July 3.

South Africa remains in lockdown, while Japan's Sunwolves have been axed and the Jaguares of Argentina face an uncertain future.

There are also questions about the competition's long-term prospects after the pandemic highlighted existing problems with a format criticised as unwieldy, expensive to run and exhausting for elite players.

New Zealand is reviewing its participation, with a report looking at ways to keep the competition relevant and sustainable due by the end of this month.

© Agence France-Presse