More than 46,000 fans were in attendance at Auckland’s Eden Park yesterday (Sunday) for the New Zealand vs Australia Bledisloe Cup match, but it was a different story for the final of the European Champions Cup on Saturday as the Exeter Chiefs’ thrilling win over Racing 92 was played at an empty Ashton Gate.

The All Blacks defeated Australia 27-7 in front of a near-capacity crowd at Eden Park, which was rebranded as Coopers Catch Park for the match.

The crowd made yesterday’s match one of the highest-attended sports events since the COVID-19 shutdown. Sports events are able to go ahead without any social distancing or restrictions in New Zealand, which has recorded just 25 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

Yesterday’s fixture was the second of the four-match Bledisloe Cup series between New Zealand and Australia, and followed the 16-16 draw at Wellington’s Sky Stadium on October 11. Further matches are planned in Sydney and Melbourne.

“Eden Park was delighted to defend its title of ‘the Fortress’ last weekend, with the All Blacks maintaining their unbeaten run at our grounds,” said Eden Park chief executive Nick Sautner.

“The last time the All Blacks lost here at the Park was 1994, and the Wallabies haven’t won here since 1986. The event was a resounding success and I was immensely proud of my lean team’s ability to deliver a memorable occasion during this extremely challenging year. As far as we’re aware, Sunday’s attendance of 46,000 is the largest crowd in the world following COVID-19, and there was a great atmosphere of celebration among the fans.

“In addition, our Sky Sport Rooftop Tours had some amazing exposure with UFC world champion Israel Adesanya and heavyweight boxer Joseph Parker both featuring during the live coverage.”

While fans are able to attend matches freely in New Zealand, sporting events in England continue to be held behind closed doors as the number of COVID-19 cases remains high.

The final of the Champions Cup had originally been due to take place at the Stade Vélodrome in the French city of Marseille but was relocated to Ashton Gate, home of Premiership club Bristol Bears and Championship football club Bristol City.

Exeter defeated Racing 92 31-27 to claim its first Champions Cup title at the 27,000-seat stadium but unfortunately for Chiefs fans, they could not be in the ground to witness the thrilling win.

Ahead of the game, Simon Halliday, chairman of European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR), which organises the Champions Cup, questioned the reasoning behind not allowing any fans at Ashton Gate. Only 56 people, including 30 players, were allowed inside the stadium.

“It is not an answer, it’s incompetence,” Halliday told The Telegraph.

Images: Eden Park/Ashton Gate Stadium