They call one section of the stadium The Zoo, and it's easy to see why: thousands of university students in team colours standing on their seats, steadying trays of beer, swaying to music and erupting with joy when their team scores.

"Craziness," is how 20-year-old student Charlotte Power described the scene. "Dancing, partying. Hopefully no fights."

New Zealand on Saturday became one of the first nations in the world to welcome hordes of fans back into a packed sports stadium, thanks to the country's remarkable success in eliminating the coronavirus.

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As countries try to reopen after lockdowns, the evening rugby match marked a milestone of sorts, and its importance wasn't lost on fans.

After instituting a strict lockdown in March, New Zealand has not reported any new cases of the coronavirus for more than three weeks, and says all those who contracted the disease have now recovered. Earlier in the week, the country removed just about every remaining virus restriction, with the notable exception of keeping the border closed.

That meant there were no masks or social distancing required when more than 20,000 fans poured into the Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin to watch Saturday's match between the local Highlanders and the Chiefs, who had travelled from Hamilton.

"I don't really have any health concerns," one fan, who gave his name as Peter, told AFP.

Another spectator, Wendy, said she feared New Zealand would have stayed locked down longer "but I'm happy that we're not. Nobody's wearing masks, it's good".

South Africa broadcaster Kaunda Ntunja tweeted: "Watching live rugby with a crowd at the stadium is something I didn´t think I would see anytime soon. I'm bloody happy. I'm sure rugby fans all over the world have the same feeling right now."

"It's massive," the country's sports minister, Grant Robertson, said on the sidelines. "It's a world first and it's a payoff for all the hard work of 5 million New Zealanders."

Robertson said he's been fielding calls from India and beyond from people curious to know how professional sports can proceed without virus restrictions. He said there's something special about being at a game.

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"Anyone who's a fan of live sport or even live music knows that if you're there, it's totally different," he said.

For fan Iki Uele, it was a pleasure just seeing all the people.

"Everyone has been dying for this moment," he told AP. "Being locked down, we just needed something to vent out."

Uele said he did have concerns that somebody in the crowd might have the virus without knowing it. But he was willing to take the chance.

German exchange student Johanna Lindner said she'd never watched a rugby match before, and people back home were both curious and perhaps a little envious.

"It's a great opportunity to socialise again," she said. "To bring the country together since New Zealand is turning into one bubble. I think it's really important to lift people's mood a little bit."

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Peter Miskimmin, the chief executive of government agency Sport New Zealand, said the return of stadium games was enormously significant, and sports were part of the nation's DNA.

"I don't think anyone has yet replicated that sense of excitement of being in a crowd, and the passions that flow from that," he said. "To be in a stadium and to feel it, and to even influence the game. The players know that the crowd is there."

Taiwan's professional baseball league began allowing a very limited number of fans into games in May, but loosened restrictions last weekend after the government eased coronavirus measures. Fans no longer have to wear masks when they're seated, food and drinks are now allowed in the stands, and stadiums can be filled up to half capacity.