The scene of 31,000 Kiwis screaming without masks on during Sunday’s thrilling Bledisloe Cup Test draw is dividing the internet.
While the rugby world has reacted to the enthralling 16-16 draw with renewed admiration for the Wallabies under new coach Dave Rennie, Australia’s feat of breaking New Zealand’s 19-year run of victories on home soil against the Wallabies was overlooked in America.
The stadium itself and the images of an almost-capacity Wellington Stadium crowd reminding the rest of the world what sporting events were like before the COVID-19 pandemic was the major talking point in many pockets of cyberspace.
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The entertaining encounter lifted rugby out of its seven-month Test hiatus in front of a large crowd of mask-free spectators with New Zealand having largely contained the virus.
It’s why it appears to be such a point of division in the United States, where sporting events are playing out behind closed doors in the majority of cases.
The NBA Playoffs have been staged in the league-established Florida bubble without any live spectators, while the NFL season has seen some smaller crowds in reduced-capacity stadiums with the league allowing individual teams to make up their own rules on crowd numbers.
Even with some NFL stadiums squeezing in 15,000 fans this month — the sight of 31,000 Kiwis crammed in without masks was too much for some jealous Americans to swallow.
It also led to uncomfortable questions about New Zealand’s aggressive national lockdown measures to wipe out active coronavirus cases in the community — and it’s overwhelming success compared to America’s national COVID-19 crisis of more than 214,000 coronavirus-related deaths.
The image posted on Reddit of the New Zealand fans enjoying sport without the need for masks or social distancing clearly hit a sore spot in the US.
Former NBA star and social media influencer Rex Chapman appeared to make a sly dig at America’s disastrous response to COVID-19 when sharing the Bledisloe Cup image with his 986,000 followers on Twitter.
“While we Americans are sitting at home watching the NFL today keep in mind this happened in New Zealand today,” he posted.
“(FWIW — They had an organised national response to Coronavirus.)”
Fellow American Prescott Rossi said: “Australia and New Zealand playing rugby right now. Pretty full crowd in Wellington. Must be nice.”
Irish rugby writer Cian Tracey tweeted: “Amazing to see such a large crowd in New Zealand for the Bledisloe Cup. Hard to believe we’re living in the same world.”
South African rugby fan Stevie J added: “Amazing to see a full crowd at sport again in New Zealand for the Bledisloe Cup. What a game of rugby they were treated to!”
For the All Blacks and Wallabies it was almost a year since they last played at the World Cup in Japan, and it was exactly 400 days since the last Test match in New Zealand.
In addition to the COVID distraction, the Test build-up was also rocked by disputes between New Zealand and Australia over Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship, and when it came to the on-field contest there were signs of rust.
But there was also a keen edge, and the draw leaves the four-match Bledisloe series wide open as Australia push to end an 18-year drought.
The Bledisloe Cupcontinues at Eden Park on Sunday before the series moves to Australia later this month where the Wallabies will hope the end New Zealand’s 18-year streak.
WORLD REACTS TO WALLABIES COMEBACK, CHEIKA’S FAILURES
New Zealand rugby commentators have suggested new Wallabies coach Dave Rennie has already exposed former Wallabies coach Michael Cheika’s big failures.
Rugby commentators have praised the organisation and fearlessness Rennie has injected into the Wallabies — it’s everything that had dissolved by the end of Cheika’s tenure.
The New Zealand Herald’s Phil Gifford wrote in a column on Monday the Wallabies on-field performance had clearly been impacted by Cheika’s “paranoid and grumpy” character.
“Teams are not always a reflection of their coach, but under Dave Rennie the 2020 Wallabies, who after 88 minutes of hotly contested rugby emerged with an historic 16-all draw in Wellington, don’t look anything like the disjointed, almost shambolic mob they were when Michael Cheika was in charge,” Gifford wrote.
“As time went by Cheika became more and more self-obsessed, as his histrionics in the coaches’ box went from amusing to embarrassing. There always seemed to something to whine about — whether it was referees or an unfair media corps, and I’ve never known a player who enjoyed working with a coach who was paranoid and grumpy.
“Yes, it’s too early to say whether the Rennie reign with the Wallabies will be as successful as the first hit-out was but eagerness on defence is always a good measure of the spirit in a squad. In Wellington it was hard to fault.”
The new mental edge Rennie has given his players was obvious in the disappointment in the Wallabies’ faces after the draw.
The All Blacks and Wallabies were both left dejected after they battled for nearly 90 minutes in a ‘wild’ thriller to relaunch international rugby after the Covid hiatus only to end up with 16-16 draw.
There were chances for both sides to snatch victory in the wind and rain at Wellington Stadium as play swept up and down the field for nearly 10 minutes after the final hooter, but in the end they had to settle for a stalemate.
“That’s bitterly disappointing for an All Blacks side,” coach Ian Foster said while Wallabies’ mentor Rennie said the Australians “had a chance but didn’t take it. We’re certainly not celebrating in the changing room.”
The one pleasing aspect for the New Zealand-born Rennie was that his players mirrored his mood that only victory was worth celebrating.
“I’m rapt with the character. What I like is seeing the disappointment with the guys in the changing room,” he said.
“There’s three Tests (in the 2020 Bledisloe Cup series) left and we’ve got to win two, so from that perspective it’s not a bad result but we’re certainly not satisfied with a draw.”
— with AFP