The Highlanders hold high hopes they will return to play rugby in North Otago again.
The Super Rugby Pacific franchise edged the Crusaders 20-19 — thanks to the boot of Marty Banks — to win the Farmlands Cup match in Weston, last Friday. But North Otago rugby fans were not present to celebrate the win, as the game was played behind closed doors due to the Red traffic light setting.
Highlanders chief executive Roger Clark said the Valley rugby grounds was a ‘‘fantastic venue’’ for the team’s first preseason hit-out, it was just disappointing they could not share the occasion with the community.
‘‘We would have loved to be able to play in front of our fans at Weston and look forward to hopefully being able to return in the future,’’ Clark said.
‘‘We have the blueprint and just need the crowds back to make it a great event for everyone.’’
Clark was impressed by the community support and North Otago’s hospitality.
‘‘We would like to extend our gratitude to Valley Rugby Club for all their hard work in preparing for the fixture and helping us on the day. A special mention to Sally-Ann Donnelly and her crew for keeping everyone well fed.’’
Glenavy’s Jackson Henshaw, who is part of New Zealand Rugby’s referee high performance squad, ran the sideline of the match as an assistant referee.
It was Henshaw’s first involvement with Super Rugby teams, and he said he was ‘‘just a bit lucky’’ the match was being played in Weston.
‘‘It was great to be invited to be part of a high performance level game and work alongside pro referee Mike Fraser, and also Fraser Hannon who is in the high performance squad with me,’’ he said.
Henshaw, who will be involved in the Super Rugby under-20 tournament next month, said it was great ‘‘high profile’’ teams were bringing their games to the smaller regions in New Zealand.
‘‘It helps build excitement in the next generation of rugby players and also gives opportunities for smaller clubs to gain some publicity.
‘‘Unfortunately, Covid Red restrictions fell at the wrong time and the Crusaders and Highlanders fans were unable to enjoy this game.’’
The match was going to be a major fundraiser for Valley and the Maheno and Kurow Rugby Clubs were also involved, but the club still managed to make the best of the situation, hosting a Farmlands Dinner at the Loan and Merc last Thursday.
All three clubs had items up for auction, and former All Black coach Sir Steve Hansen was guest speaker at the dinner.
Valley president Hamish Loe said while it was disappointing numbers had to be reduced from 300 to 100, due to traffic light restrictions, and it was still a ‘‘brilliant night’’.
‘‘It worked out. Steve Hansen spoke very well, it was a great evening . . .the auction items went well,’’ Loe said.
It was great to witness a good level of rugby being played at Weston, and the few Valley members working security enjoyed the game, he said.