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Returning rugby fans in NZ treated to thriller at packed stadium

A few minutes earlier, All Blacks playmaker Damien McKenzie kicked a drop goal that put the Chiefs ahead 27-25. In total, the match featured five lead changes.

The game was played under new rules allowing for golden-point extra time to separate locked scores at the end of regulation time.

It wasn’t necessary this time; instead, one of rugby’s most traditional and under-used scoring forms – the drop goal – was called on to separate the teams.

Fans packed out the match between the Highlanders and Chiefs in Dunedin on Saturday.

Fans packed out the match between the Highlanders and Chiefs in Dunedin on Saturday.Credit:PHOTOSPORT

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 drop goal from about 35 metres to regain a lead the Highlanders were able to defend as the clock ran down.

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.

For the past three months New Zealand sports stadiums and most of those around the world have fallen silent because of the coronavirus pandemic.

For the past three months New Zealand sports stadiums and most of those around the world have fallen silent because of the coronavirus pandemic.Credit:Getty

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.

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They could cheer as often and loudly as they wished and they did so enough to make the rafters ring at the 22,800-capacity indoor stadium.

The match marked a new development not just for New Zealand sport or professional rugby, which has been suspended since March, but for high-profile professional sports leagues.

The players were expected to be rusty and 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 a historic milestone.

It was a major step back to normality after the forced austerity of the coronavirus era.

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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