The big-name players were back, along with swollen grandstands, but the referees were in no mood to celebrate as Super Rugby completed its return in stop-start fashion.
A 30-20 victory for the Blues over the Hurricanes at a sold-out Eden Park on Sunday rounded out the inaugural weekend of Super Rugby Aotearoa.
It was a second result to delight home supporters after the Highlanders pipped the Chiefs 28-27 in Dunedin a night earlier – the first match since the country emerged from its COVID-19 lockdown.
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While the national sport’s return and presence of crowds was widely heralded, the influence of match officials soured both games and may prompt administrators to rethink their approach.
A total of 61 penalties across 160 minutes of play was the result of a NZ Rugby edict that referees crack down on breakdown and off-side indiscretions. It was hoped compliant players would induce a free-flowing game but instead frustration dominated, particularly with attacking teams regularly penalised.
Former All Blacks great Sir John Kirwan chided referee Mike Fraser as “pedantic” at halftime at Eden Park while Chiefs coach Warren Gatland called for less whistle.
“We just have to be very careful that we still want teams to have the confidence to play,’‘ Gatland told reporters.
“If there are too many turnovers, what we are going to see happen is we are going to end up with a bit of a kicking-fest where teams will say ‘we won’t play any rugby in our own half’.”
Both teams scored three tries each in Auckland but a six-from-six goalkicking return from Blues five-eighth Otere Black proved the difference in front of 43,000 fans, the biggest crowd at a Kiwi Super Rugby game for 15 years.
The performance of Black and rising No.8 Hoskins Sotutu overshadowed the long-awaited Blues debut of All Blacks star playmaker Beauden Barrett. The most prominent moment for somewhat muted fullback Barrett came when he was roughed up in friendly fashion by several of his former Hurricanes teammates after Dane Coles crossed for the visitors.
Ten-time Super Rugby champions the Crusaders sat out an opening-round bye and will open their campaign against the Hurricanes in Wellington next week while the Chiefs will host the Blues.