Super Rugby Aotearoa begins with bang as Kiwis rediscover rugby love

AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- From the far north to the deep south, the All Blacks to the grassroots, rugby is long woven into the fabric of New Zealand life. It seems fitting, then, that ending the code's three-month hiatus over the weekend brought with it an overwhelming sense of achievement, and an outpouring of support. For many Kiwis, rugby's return is as close as it gets to normality in this coronavirus world.

"Thank you Aotearoa" beamed a sign which separated the Blues and Hurricanes before kickoff Sunday as a 43,000-spectator sellout -- the largest Super Rugby crowd at Auckland's Eden Park for 15 years -- paused to appreciate the sacrifices everyday New Zealanders made to enable us all to savour the joy of reliving live sport.

Every New Zealand rugby player, coach and administrator understands how fortunate they are to be underway again, thanks to the swift and strict government lockdown measures amid the coronavirus pandemic, and the commitment the country made to see them through.

Time spent in isolation sparked enthusiasm to attend events, to mingle in gatherings, to shout, support and simply experience atmosphere again.

As fans jumped at the first chance to return, throwback jerseys met old-school scenes. Mums, dads and kids flooded onto the Eden Park pitch after witnessing the Blues defeat the Hurricanes 30-20, enhancing the feel-good vibes on a special Sunday afternoon.

"We've probably lost touch of that slightly as time has gone on, but I know there's going to be a lot of kids that will remember this for a long time," Blues coach Leon MacDonald of the postmatch embrace.

Through its opening weekend, Super Rugby Aotearoa, the New Zealand-only derby competition, reaped the rewards as the public fell for the national sport again, with over 60,000 flocking through the gates in Dunedin and Auckland.

While the on-field product suffered at times as teams and officials attempt to get on the same page and the crackdown on the breakdown dished up 58 penalties across the two fixtures, there was no shortage of storylines.

First, Bryn Gatland slotted a last-minute dropped goal Saturday to sink the Chiefs and hand his father, Warren, defeat after receiving a late call-up to the Highlanders' bench. Even cannier, the night before the match, Bryn predicting he would come on and nail the winning kick during a dinner with both of his parents.

"I'm not happy about the result, but he showed a bit of calmness there, and he's done that in the past and won games in clutch moments," coach Warren Gatland said with mixed emotions after the dramatic 28-27 loss under the Forsyth Barr Stadium roof. "Unfortunately we gave him that opportunity and, in fairness, he was able to step up to the plate and deliver for them."

One day later, Beauden Barrett finally made his anticipated Blues debut, some eight months after last playing for the All Blacks at the World Cup in Japan. Never mind the most overqualified water boys in history, fellow new recruit Dan Carter and Blues defence coach Tana Umaga -- Barrett's maiden appearance against his former Hurricanes teammates hogged headlines all week.

Barrett started at fullback, not first five-eighth, and had a subdued performance by his lofty standards, with more sure to come over the next 10 weeks of this domestic competition as he settles into his new team and back into the game.

Dane Coles was always going to have a pop at Barrett, who played 125 games for the Hurricanes before shifting north this season. The All Blacks hooker did not miss his chance, showcasing his outrageous turn of speed down the right-hand edge before bumping off Barrett to finish a memorable try in the corner any wing would be proud of.

As the Hurricanes celebrated, Coles gave Barrett a cheeky rub on the head and a whisper in the ear for good measure. Later in the match, Coles also knocked Barrett over with a minor late shot -- Barrett then chasing him down to shove him in the back.

These personal duels are but one aspect that will continue to grip viewers.

"That just happened in slow motion," Barrett said of the first movement, having predicted Coles coming at him. "It was almost like it was meant to be, so fair play to him. He's pretty good in the wide channels and in space, so a guy like him should be able to finish against someone like me."

Unfortunately for Coles and the Hurricanes, Barrett and the Blues had the final say as they squeezed the visitors into submission in the second half, scoring three classy tries along the way to pick up where they left off before the shutdown with their fifth consecutive victory.

All four teams on display this weekend -- the Crusaders staged an internal hit out while on the bye -- exhibited elements of rust, to be expected after the three-month suspension.

For all the interpretation issues at the breakdown that need immediately sorting, 11 tries in the first two outings signals just how captivating Super Rugby Aotearoa will be in the coming weeks.

"Every team has shown glimpses of brilliant rugby -- I don't think any team has really nailed their cohesion yet," MacDonald said. "That will come.

"There's definitely an element of our game that's exciting. The try that Dane Coles scored down the edge was scintillating stuff and our tries were just as good. Under the roof down south and an afternoon game, it makes for some pretty awesome spectacles."

Rugby's return was as much a celebration of normality as it was the sport regaining centre stage.

In New Zealand, after all, normality and rugby will forever be intertwined.