Whakatāne rugby fans celebrated the move to alert level 1 by getting up close and personal with their heroes today.Thousands of people, mostly children, were at Rugby Park for a glimpse of the All Blacks as they went through their paces during a public training session.
It was a rare opportunity to run out in front of their fans after Covid-19 and the resulting lockdowns that wreaked havoc on the international rugby season.
Fans got their money's worth as the players spent a good 15 minutes after training signing autographs and posing for photos - the smiles on the faces of both the fans and the players told the whole story.
Speaking to media afterwards, All Blacks stalwart Sam Whitelock said the reception the team had received in Whakatāne had been "pretty awesome".
"There are some pretty excited kids out there and the adults are pushing them forward too which is nice. It's pretty nice here, it took a wee while for everyone to get there and we're really enjoying just getting to know some of the new boys and the old friendly faces as well.
"We're enjoying getting to know some of the locals and seeing what this place is all about. It's pretty humbling when you're involved in the All Blacks and you come to a place like this and have this sort of turn out."
The three-day training camp in Whakatāne marks the ramping up of the All Blacks' preparations for the first Bledisloe Cup match against Australia on October 11.
Remarkably, it will be the team's first outing since they beat Wales 40-17 in the Rugby World Cup third-place playoff on November 1 last year.
Whitelock said this stage of preparations was about enjoying each other's company and making sure the team gelled.
"I think that connection is massive, we've come from five different franchises and we've all been playing provincial rugby so it's an even greater number. This is the first time we've had the 2020 squad together this year and it's pretty awesome to look around the room and think this is the group of guys who have been chosen to represent our country."
Some of the players, including Whitelock, took the time to go with teammate TJ Perenara to his marae in Matatā yesterday afternoon."It was really cool," Whitelock said.
"Obviously, for TJ, being at home was really special and it was pretty awesome to get to know where he's from and his family. I've known TJ for a number of years so it was pretty cool to see this side of his family."
One of seven new All Blacks caps in the 2020 squad, Crusaders loose forward Cullen Grace, said seeing all the fans in Whakatāne made it hit home that he was an All Black now.
"It's awesome to see how many people have turned out. It is pretty surreal, it doesn't feel like long ago that I was one of those kids myself, being a fan of the All Blacks.
"[Whakatāne] definitely isn't a place I thought I'd be doing my first media session in but it's a really good place. The people are really nice and the weather's been great, this is my first time here and yesterday was my first time on a marae.
"It's been awesome, to actually be here is pretty unreal and to be around such experience and knowledge - I'm just trying to pick everyone's brains and learn as much as I can. I'm trying to remember that I was picked for a reason so I just need to be myself and focus on what I can bring to the table."
Among the fans clambering to get close to the All Blacks were the Ruatoki under-11 rugby team. Their coach Tekauru Edwards said it was a great opportunity for the young players to see their idols.
"They all like it, they have a few players in the All Blacks that they like and they want to try to meet.
"It's good for them, they were really excited - plus they get a day off. They're most excited about the Barrett and Ioane brothers."
One of the under-11 players Tapiki Rangihau, 12, said he was "really excited" when he heard he would be seeing the All Blacks up close.
He said Rieko Ioane was his favourite player because "he's real fast" and that it was cool to see how the All Blacks trained.