The Auckland Blues, featuring their blue-chip signing Beauden Barrett for the first time, overran the Wellington Hurricanes 30-20 on Sunday as the return of live sport in New Zealand drew a full house to Auckland's Eden Park.
More than 43,000 packed the ground in the largest turnout at a Super Rugby match in New Zealand for 15 years, as fans starved of professional sport for three months celebrated the return of an unfettered contest less than a week after the country declared itself free of COVID-19.
The pre-match talking point was the maiden appearance for the Blues of former Hurricane stalwart Barrett, a two-time World Player of the year.
The Blues were further bolstered by the appearance of All Blacks and Canterbury Crusaders legend Dan Carter offering guidance from the sideline.
But the input from the two fly-halves was overshadowed by the performance of the Blues pack who bossed the Hurricanes in the fast-paced match, and the kicking of Otere Black who wore the coveted 10 jersey with Barrett playing at fullback.
While Black scored 15 points off the boot, Barrett's performance was noted for a missed tackle that let Dane Coles in for a try.
"My eyes lit up when I saw him," Coles said while Blues captain Patrick Tuipulotu said it was Barrett's "composure" that made a significant contribution to the victory.
The Blues, underperformers for several seasons, had a history of strong starts and poor finishes, but in the revamped New Zealand version of Super Rugby, the addition of Barrett produced a new backbone.
The Hurricanes started strongest and were up 3-0 after a Jackson Garden-Bachop penalty in the ninth minute.
When the Blues responded with a try to Caleb Clarke, converted by Black, the Hurricanes immediately regained the lead with Coles, stationed on the wing, smashing through Barrett's attempted tackle to score in the corner and celebrating by cheekily ruffling his former teammates' hair.
A try to TJ Faiane converted by Black and one to the Hurricanes by Ben Lam saw the Blues turn with a narrow 14-13 lead.
The Blues dominated the second half with an early try to Dalton Papalii while Black added a conversion and three penalties before Jamie Booth scored a consolation try for the Hurricanes just before fulltime.
The Hurricanes' players celebrate a Dane Coles try as their former teammate and Blues debutant Beauden Barrett is dragged in for some good-natured ribbing and hair ruffling
Eden Park was packed with 43,000 for the Super Rugby match between the Auckland Blues and Wellington Hurricanes following the lifting of coronavirus restrictions in New Zealand
Auckland Blues assistant coach Tana Umaga poses for a selfie with a young fan before the Super Rugby match against Wellington Hurricanes at Eden Park