Professional rugby union resumed on Saturday after a three-month coronavirus shutdown as the Highlanders beat the Chiefs 28-27 in the opener of New Zealand’s Super Rugby Aotearoa competition.
With a crowd of around 20,000 at the game in Dunedin, Highlanders replacement Bryn Gatland slotted a 79th-minute drop goal to beat the Chiefs, who are coached by his father Warren.
A few minutes earlier, All Blacks playmaker Damian McKenzie kicked a drop goal which had put the Chiefs ahead 27-25 in a match which featured five lead changes.
The hometown Highlanders, cheered on by thousands of delighted Otago University students in ‘The Zoo’ section of the indoor stadium, had to overcome two periods with just 14 men after Vilimoni Koroi and Jona Nareki were sinbinned for dangerous tackles.
The competition has been organised by New Zealand Rugby after the main Super Rugby tournament, which also involves teams from Australia, South Africa, Argentina and Japan, was halted in mid-March to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
The encounter which was regularly halted for a high number of penalties called under stricter interpretations around the tackle saw Highlanders captain Ash Dixon scoring the first try of the competition, while Koroi and Nareki were perilously close to becoming the first players to receive red cards after dangerous tackles either sides of both halves.
The Chiefs were kept in the game through McKenzie’s boot as he converted four of his side’s penalties, while the full-back gave the visitors a 27-25 lead with two minutes remaining through a drop goal.
McKenzie struck his from close range to put the Chiefs ahead for the first time in the second half. The Highlanders, however, managed to set up field position just inside Chiefs territory from the restart and Gatland calmly slotted home the winning drop kick from almost 40 metres to send the passionate home fans into delirium.