Celebrations as fans return to professional sport

A Hercules flyover, to celebrate a Herculean effort.

Fans cheered as the New Zealand Air Force made a low pass over Eden Park on Sunday, just moments before kickoff between the Blues and Hurricanes in round one of Super Rugby Aotearoa.

On the ground, a simple message standing between the two teams. Thank you Aotearoa.

A message reiterated by All Blacks first five, and Blues debutant, Beauden Barrett after the match.

"It was about rugby being back and everyone coming to support this team, and also the Hurricanes.

"Just a celebration of rugby. You know, it's fantastic to be back playing and to see the support, we were absolutely blown away by the support."

More than 60,000 attended the weekend's matches in Auckland and Dunedin, the competition one of the first in the world to allow fans since the Covid-19 crisis began.

A sold-out crowd of 43,000 watched Barrett celebrated his Blues debut with victory over his old team, while almost 20,000 were there to see the Highlanders pip the Chiefs in dramatic fashion in Saturday night's competition opener.

Having lost last minute to the sure foot of his son and Highlanders replacement back Bryn Gatland, Chiefs coach Warren Gatland still managed a wry smile.

"I suppose if anyone was going to do it, it was going be him in that situation," the British Lions coach told Sky.

"No, I'm not happy we lost the game but, you know, well done to him. I don't care whether he's my son or not, I'm still disappointed about the result."

The same could be said for Hurricanes fans on Sunday, after one of their favourite sons helped bring about their team's demise.

Barrett said it was a pleasing way to begin his Blues career.

"It's been a long time coming and I've played this game a million times in my head, so it's good to get it done and out of the way.

"Obviously there's that emotional hurdle to get over, playing all my mates as well as starting a new chapter in my career. Yeah, very proud of the start."

It wasn't quite the perfect debut.

But the All Blacks No 10 saw the funny side of his failure to stop Dane Coles score a spectacular first half try - and being caught among the Canes' subsequent celebrations.

"It just happened in slow motion and it was almost like it was meant to be, so fair play to him.

"He's pretty good in the wide channel and in the space so a guy like him should be able to finish again someone like me."

Coles' try was one of the few bright spots for the visitors, as a more clinical Blues side eased away in the second half.

Afterwards, though, all those leaving were smiling. Even the ones in yellow and black.

And the final reward for the biggest Super Rugby crowd at Eden Park for 15 years was permission to come onto the ground after the match.

Thousands took the chance to grab an autograph or selfie from the players, and Blues coach Leon MacDonald said it was great to see.

"Even to stand on Eden Park as a kid is a big thrill. Then to be able to touch the players, get their signatures and say g'day is awesome.

"It feels [like] a bit of back to the old but it's the right way and I think we've probably lost touch with that slightly.

"I know there's going be a lot of kids that will remember this for a long time."

A fitting end, to a historic weekend for New Zealand's national game.