For the longest time, afternoon kick-offs in New Zealand have been restricted to Mitre 10 Cup matches and the odd test match. On Sunday, the Blues hosted the Hurricanes in the first mid-afternoon match of the Super Rugby Aotearoa season and it was a massive hit for both the fans and the players.
Over 43,000 spectators turned up at the sold-out Eden Park – rivalling the crowds that were on hand for the Blues’ match against the touring British and Irish Lions in 2017 and the Blues’ play-off matches in 2003.
Obviously, it helped that the Blues were sitting on a four-match winning streak and that new signing Beauden Barrett was set to make his debut for the club while the weather also thankfully played ball – but the fans showed that there’s certainly an appetite for afternoon footy in New Zealand.
Players have been clamouring for earlier matches too because the quality of rugby they’re able to play is typically significantly higher. By 7PM a heavy dew has normally set in around rugby pitches – especially so in winter – but there’s no such problem when matches kick off at 3:30.
Barrett, the man of the hour, was emphatic that Sunday afternoon matches are great for the game.
“It was fantastic to play in the afternoon. I think it’s great for everyone,” Barrett said following Sunday’s match. “The product is pretty good, the ball isn’t dewy, so you see a more expansive game, hopefully, and hopefully we can get more of it, especially on Sundays.”
His former teammate, Reed Prinsep, who was on the losing side on Sunday, was also full of praise for running out on a dry track.
“I’m a big fan of the afternoon game,” Prinsep said. “Obviously, I’ve had a taste of it at Mitre 10 Cup level, but I absolutely love it.
“It’s awesome because families can get out there, kids can get out there and they can get home and it’s a normal bedtime routine. Certainly, from my point of view and most of the players, afternoon footy is awesome.”
Prinsep also enjoyed the opportunity to run out onto the park at the same time as his opposition.
“I thought it was amazing running out of the tunnel alongside each other. You just take a moment to soak it all in and look around and it put a smile on my face.”
While professional rugby matches in New Zealand have gravitated towards later kick-off times over the years to draw in as many overseas viewers as possible, stadium chock full of spectators enhances the atmosphere for everyone at the stadium as well as everyone watching from home.
Even though matches in the UK and Ireland tend to attract similar numbers as the NZ games, stadiums in the Northern Hemisphere tend to be considerably smaller so there are far fewer empty seats. Games up north also tend to kick off in the mid-afternoon which again appeals to families.
Meanwhile, a combined 750,000 New Zealanders tuned in for the first two games of Super Rugby Aotearoa and the Warriors’ NRL clash against the Cowboys on Friday night,
Sky Sport’s The Breakdown reported that the Super Rugby viewing figures was a whopping 92 per cent increase on average audiences.
If fans continue to vote with their feet and show up week after week at the stadiums across New Zealand, then the powers that be will be forced to offer afternoon Super Rugby matches for the years to come – which can only be a good thing for the spectators across the country who want to bear witness to live rugby.
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