By Wyatt Ryder
The boilersuits were back.
So was the man dressed as a chicken and the Highlander with a soft toy for a shield and a sorry excuse for a sword.
The Zoo was back for the first time this season.
Masks were replaced with smiles and social distancing got squashed in the huddle — in that part of the stadium at least.
A crowd of 7563 had trickled in to Forsyth Barr Stadium on Saturday afternoon, the first time the Highlanders have played to a home crowd at the stadium this season after restrictions on outdoor gatherings were lifted last week.
Despite the party atmosphere, some who attended may have left a little disappointed.
The Highlanders were edged 32-25 by the Blues but for a couple of hours everyone got to be normal again, and normal apparently includes dressing up as a chicken — hey, it is not called the Zoo for nothing.
While the Zoo was reasonably full, the crowd in the centre stand, where season ticket holders are typically seated, was sparser.
Those fans who had decided to head in to see the game were ready to revel again in the magic of a live sporting event.
Roger Tobin said from the stands the players did not feel like simple characters in a television show, and you could almost smell the grass from the field as they played.
The way the sound travelled when the players tackled each other could not be translated through a broadcast and watching the game in person also had the benefit of being able to talk to neighbours and fellow fans, he said.
Noel Vallely said it was great not having to rely on the television producers to pick the right shot.
Being at the match felt natural and you could watch exactly what you wanted to keep your eye on, he said.
Eleven-year-old Jesse-Alan Taylor, wearing a signed Highlanders jersey, could not remember the last time he had seen a match, but it was before the first lockdown in 2020.
He could not wait to see all his favourite players again, he said.
Dunedin Venues Management Ltd chief executive Terry Davies called the crowd size predictable for the return of rugby to the stadium.
Despite present nervousness or trepidation among some fans about public gatherings, he had "absolute confidence" that crowd sizes would grow from now, Mr Davies said.
The main unknown at this stage was how quickly they would grow, he said.
Republished courtesy of the Otago Daily Times.