New Zealand to become the first country to allow fans at stadiums post-lockdown
New Zealand players will be the first sportspeople on the planet, from countries that were in lockdown, to play in front of fans when their new domestic rugby competition kicks off this weekend.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced on Monday that the country was Covid-19 transmission-free, meaning life would return close to pre-coronavirus normal this week.
This was good news for sports in that country. New Zealand sports were already set to resume this coming weekend after a 75-day lockdown, but now they can compete with the bonus of playing in front of fans.
The coronavirus pandemic forced the suspension of most leagues, tournaments and tours over the past three months. Those that have slowly returned to play, such as German football’s Bundesliga, have done so behind closed doors. Empty stadiums with cardboard cut-out ‘fans’ have replaced real spectators, and in most places will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
New Zealand’s geographical isolation, coupled with early and decisive action from Ardern’s government, allowed it to contain the spread of Covid-19 and then defeat it in less than three months. They’ve won the battle and are ready to allow people to mingle again – but the war is not over.
“While the job is not done, there is no denying this is a milestone… Thank you, New Zealand,” Ardern told reporters on Monday.
“We are confident we have eliminated transmission of the virus in New Zealand for now, but elimination is not a point in time, it is a sustained effort. Today, 75 days later, we are ready.”
As a result of the restrictions being lifted, a new rugby tournament that kicks off this weekend which – and replaces the suspended 2020 Super Rugby tournament – will not have any crowd restrictions.
Super Rugby Aotearoa involves New Zealand’s five teams – the Blues, Chiefs, Crusaders, Highlanders and Hurricanes – which will once again put the perennial pacesetters in world rugby ahead of the rest.
“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,” said New Zealand Rugby (NZR) chief Mark Robinson.
“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.”
Border controls remain tightly monitored and New Zealanders still won’t be able to travel abroad for now, but at least inside the stadiums there will be some atmosphere as fans mingle with no physical distancing restrictions.
While the excitement about the return of rugby in a country where the sport is a national obsession, the rest of the sporting world can only watch in envy.
South Africa has no definite return-to-play dates for football and rugby under the current Level 3 restrictions. Professional non-contact sports are allowed to resume, but that has caused concern as the industry in South Africa needs a wide level of amateur participation to survive.
World number one men’s tennis player Novak Djokovic admitted in an interview recently that the thought of playing in front of rows of empty seats with no atmosphere, left him cold.
“I honestly don’t dream to play in front of empty stands. But it looks like that’s going to be the reality of tennis,” Djokovic said in a recent interview on the ATP Tour’s website. “We have to probably accept that if we want to have the tour continued, then we have to be playing in certain restricted conditions that will at least allow us to play and compete.”
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola was another who questioned the merits of playing professional sports without fans in stadiums. He made the remarks in the early days of the coronavirus shutdown in Britain – thoughts that now seem endearingly naïve.
“You have to ask whether it is worth playing football without the spectators,” Guardiola said at a press conference on 10 March. “It doesn’t make any sense to play professional football without the people, because they are the ones we do it for, but obviously we are going to follow the instructions we are given.
“I would prefer not to play games without people watching, but clearly health is the most important thing, not the competition. I do think playing games behind closed doors is going to happen here, but just one or two games, maybe. No longer than that.”
Here we are, three months on, and although the Premier League is set to return this weekend, it will be played behind closed doors. For something resembling watching sport as we know it, we will have to turn our attention to New Zealand and Super Rugby Aotearoa for now. DM