What we have learnt from New Zealand’s return to rugby
Players battled to understand interpretations at the breakdown and struggled with the offside line
Rugby’s return last weekend after its suspension in mid-March was cherished by those who witnessed it. The Highlanders and Chiefs went full throttle in a humdinger before the Blues and Hurricanes contributed to the spectacle on Sunday.
But what did we learn from Super Rugby Aotearoa’s opening weekend?
Predictably, with the referees told to ensure quick ruck ball and a speeded-up game‚ the players struggled to come to grips with the interpretations at the breakdown and with the offside line. Referees Paul Williams and Mike Fraser awarded a staggering 58 penalties in the two matches.
Eleven of the 28 penalties in the Highlanders vs Chiefs match were for the ball carrier not releasing the ball. Equally‚ players have yet to fully grasp the concept of rolling away after a tackle‚ entering the ruck through the gate and not shooting prematurely out of defensive alignment.
Instead of pointing fingers at the officials for being pedantic‚ there is general agreement the players need to clean up their act.
Drop goals‚ so long ignored as a potential weapon, found a way back into the Kiwis’ collective consciousness. It took an addition to their competition rules to bring it front of mind.
They have introduced a 10-minute golden point extra-time period if scores are level at full time, which has led to teams practising drop goals. It is a skill that was clearly honed and it was there for all to see on Saturday, first through Damian McKenzie and then‚ tellingly, Bryn Gatland.
With so much interest in the build-up to the tournament, players generally warmed to the challenge of getting themselves into shape. Star back Beauden Barrett took it a notch further by setting new training-field benchmarks.
It is widely thought that players need six to eight weeks before they play their first competitive match after a long layoff. Ideally, a practice match should also be played before players go into full combat competition mode but time restrictions and availability may prove obstacles. Apart perhaps from the Blues, the four teams on display at the opening weekend held up well.
Sports fans are desperate to see their heroes again. Both matches in Dunedin and Auckland attracted big crowds, a total of 63‚000 people and in Auckland‚ there was a sell-out at Eden Park‚ the home of the capricious Blues.
Those who did not make it to the matches made sure they watched it. Pay channel Sky TV announced a combined 750‚000 New Zealanders watched the Highlanders vs Chiefs and Blues vs Hurricanes games in Super Rugby Aotearoa‚ as well as the Warriors-Cowboys NRL game in Australia on Friday night.
According to stuff.co.nz, Sky’s The Breakdown show reported on Tuesday night that the Super Rugby figures represented a 91% increase on the average audience.
With their Covid-19 infection curve flattened, New Zealand was able not just to open its economy but fans were allowed to attend matches. It was proved again that watching games with a crowd in attendance stirs something in the soul that matches without people cannot.
Having a live audience is what helps create sporting theatre. The Bundesliga‚ La Liga and the Premier League can assemble their galaxy of stars but in front of empty stands they just do not shine as brightly.