Highlanders co-captain Ash Dixon admits it was a weird feeling playing his 100th Super Rugby game in front of an empty Forsyth Barr Stadium in the final match of Super Rugby Aotearoa.
The Highlanders bagged a 38-21 win over the Hurricanes behind closed doors in Dunedin, with fans barred from attending the match due to the COVID-19 level 2 restrictions in place nationwide – except for Auckland, which remains at level 3.
As such, the Highlanders vs Hurricanes clash was the only fixture to take place in the final round of Super Rugby Aotearoa this weekend, with the highly-anticipated Blues vs Crusaders match at Eden Park cancelled.
Dixon shared his milestone appearance with fellow co-captain Aaron Smith, who was making playing in his 150th Super Rugby match for the Highlanders.
Celebrating the achievement with a first half try, Dixon told media post-match that it was a “bizarre” atmosphere playing in front of no fans.
“You can hear everything, I could hear lineout calls and the feeling of it was kind of just funny,” the 31-year-old hooker said.
“But once you kind of zoned in and the game was flowing, it was okay. You just had to get into the game as quick as you could.
“It was like a trial for something, like two teams trialling for something, because you didn’t have the energy of the crowd, the Zoo going nuts, the DJ playing, the bagpipes rolling through. It was just quiet, which was funny.”
Despite the eerie setting the game was played in, coaches from both sides wouldn’t be drawn into using the empty stadium as a factor behind the result.
“No,” Highlander head coach Aaron Mauger said when asked if having nobody to play in front of had an impact on the game.
“For us, it’s just like a Thursday training. Boys are used to it, especially in here [Forsyth Barr Stadium]. Maybe it might have been a bit different for the Hurricanes, but our boys are used to that inside the stadium for training, so didn’t have an impact for us.”
Hurricanes head coach Jason Holland was responded similarly when posed the same question, and refused to lay the blame of his side’s defeat on their rushed travel schedule brought on by the New Zealand Government’s COVID-19 restrictions.
As part of New Zealand Rugby’s level 2 protocols agreed with the government, the Hurricanes flew into Dunedin on a charter flight on Saturday morning before returning to Wellington later that evening.
“We just wanted to play footy, and we’ve got to the stage now where the boys are professional enough to know what they need to do a few hours before a game,” Holland said, although he did admit playing in front of empty stands was “weird”.
“I don’t think it had an impact. It was a little bit weird for us walking out there initially, but I don’t think so,” he said.
“All those things are peripheral things and everything we can control, we can control. There was no impact from that sort of stuff.”
Dixon, meanwhile, will now prepare for a Mitre 10 Cup campaign with Hawke’s Bay, while a potential appearance in the North vs South clash could well be on the cards.
He remained coy on his future plans beyond that, though.
“I don’t really know what’s coming around the corner, I don’t know what I’m after, but I know there’s something there for me, I’ve just got to try find it and I’m just gonna try do that through footy.”
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now