After full stadiums, Super Rugby Aotearoa ends without fans

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Super Rugby Aotearoa, which began as one of a few major sports tournaments in the world to be played in stadiums filled with fans, ended Saturday in a empty stadium where the Highlanders beat the Hurricanes 38-21 at Dunedin, New Zealand.

The New Zealand professional rugby tournament, organized amid the coronavirus pandemic when the full Super Rugby season was abandoned in March, followed an opposing course to other major sports leagues around the world. When it began on June 13, New Zealand was almost alone in the world in having contained COVID-19; the two matches on opening weekend drew crowds of 22,000 in Dunedin and 43,000 in Auckland.

A resurgence of the virus in Auckland over the past week means the match between the Dunedin-based Highlanders and Wellington-based Hurricanes was played under alert Level 2 at which gatherings of more than 100 people are prohibited.

The scheduled final match of the season on Sunday between newly-crowned champions the Crusaders and the Blues, which again was to have attracted 43,000 fans to Auckland’s Eden Park, was abandoned because New Zealand’s largest city is at alert Level 3 and major sports events cannot take place.

The tournament therefore followed an odd trajectory, from its beginning in fan-packed stadiums 10 weeks ago to its end a day ahead of schedule on Saturday in the echoing silence of Dunedin’s indoor stadium.

New Zealand as a nation has followed the same path, from its envied position in June as one of the few places on earth where daily life carried on almost as normal to a familiar situation Saturday in which constraints are in place.

After going 102 days without a single case of community transmission, New Zealand now has 37 cases apparently related to a single family cluster in Auckland.

If the outbreak can be contained, it is possible life and sport will again return to normal. The next major rugby fixture and is the North versus South match due to be played in Auckland on Aug. 29. Auckland’s current Level 3 lockdown — imposed for 12 days — will expire before that date but the match at least may be transferred if restrictions are extended.

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