New Zealand letter: Covid numbers are rising, there’s snow forecast - and an earthquake hit earlier this week

Next Test is a 28,500 sell-out and all hotels, motels, guest houses and Airbnbs booked out

The Irish squad broke with custom by having their last full training session on Wednesday morning before their 2½ hour afternoon flight to Dunedin, so making Thursday a complete day off before their Captain’s Run at the enclosed FMG Stadium on Friday.

Goodbye then to Auckland after a fortnight there and hello to the bottom of the South Island, be it directly to Dunedin for the squad or Queenstown for a chunk of the travelling supporters and families.

Having a game against the Maori All Blacks in Hamilton last Wednesday helped the week go quicker. Midweek matches always do. That the second game against the Maoris does not take place until next Tuesday in Wellington is even better as it makes a brief stopover in Queenstown possible this week.

The normal July rains had hit Auckland on Tuesday and Wednesday, although until then — save for the day-long downpour for match day against the Maoris — it had been untypically pleasant and dry. The city is also awash with good coffee and good restaurants, especially Asian-infused, be they Japanese, Chinese or Vietnamese. A half-hour trip by ferry to the beautiful Waiheke Island for lunch at a restaurant with its own wines is a popular venture and a fairly unforgettable experience. The city bay and the view from the sea may not quite be on a par with Sydney, but it’s in the running for next best.

There’s no doubting the importance of rugby, and specifically the All Blacks, to the New Zealand psyche, and the Irish players were constantly made aware of it whenever they ventured into downtown Auckland. Yet it’s nowhere near as all-consuming as is the case for a World Cup or Lions tour. The New Zealand media pack seems to have shrunk noticeably over the years, although this is partly due to several of them testing positive for Covid, including one member of the press box from last Saturday night in Eden Park.

After effectively closing the country off from the world to protect itself from the pandemic, now Covid and plenty of other cold and flu-like viruses are catching up with New Zealand.

On Tuesday, prime minister Jacinda Ardern, whose popularity has shrunk, said there is “no expectation” the country will return to red traffic light restrictions despite a single day spike of 3,000-plus Covid cases that has alarmed scientific experts.

New Zealand registered 9,629 new community cases on Tuesday, a significant increase on Monday’s 6,498 cases. Epidemiologists say this is being driven by the emergence of the new Omicron BA5 subvariant and hospitals are coming under severe strain again.

The University of Auckland senior lecturer in computational evolution, Dr David Welch, said: “I certainly won’t rule out going back into red within the next few weeks, but then again I’m not sure if it is politically feasible and whether people will listen this time.”

Indeed, New Zealanders have had their fill, like everyone else, and while Auckland in midweek can be quiet, residents have returned to socialising. This is especially so on Saturday nights, which can be a little wild.

Packing out Eden Park last Saturday for the first time since before the 2019 World Cup was the biggest manifestation of that return to “normality”. There was a fair sprinkling of dots of green amid the sea of black, and Eden Park looked an absolute picture. But even allowing for the press box being behind a glass screen, the atmosphere was not especially intimidating or even remotely akin to the feverish noise and singing of the Aviva Stadium last November or the World Cup quarter-final in Tokyo. While they become quite excited when the All Blacks spring into life and score tries, Kiwi rugby crowds are relatively reserved. They also lack a song. It was well over an hour into the match before the solitary chant of “All Blacks, All Blacks”.

It’s almost an oddity that Eden Park has become the most impregnable fortress in the history of Test rugby. It just so happened that the Springboks, Wallabies and England, à la 2003, who were in their pomp and who beat the All Blacks in New Zealand, were scheduled to play elsewhere, be it Dunedin, Wellington or Christchurch.

Yet which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Clearly the All Blacks take comfort and draw strength from playing at Eden Park. It re-enforced their belief and intent that they would not lose three Tests in a row for the first time since 1998.

Who knows, maybe it made them even more determined to keep the ball off the ground those five times Ireland were over their line, and fuelled Reiko Ioane’s desire to prevent Joey Carbery and Josh van der Flier scoring? Maybe it contributed to some of the calls made by Karl Dickson and Marius van der Westhuizen?

The din is liable to be noisier at the FMG Stadium and that next Saturday’s second Test will take place under a roof is all the more welcome as snow is forecast for much of the South Island. The match is a 28,500 sell-out and all hotels, motels, guest houses and Airbnbs in the city are booked out. Supporters are staying as far away as Milton and Palmerston, which are 55k away from Dunedin.

Three-and-a-half hours away by car, Queenstown is sprinkled with green jersey-wearing Irish supporters who have stopped off en route between the first two Tests.

Travelling from Auckland was a relative joy. Admittedly it was a domestic airport only, but even so there was plenty of staff at check-in; security was a breeze and even friendly, and little queuing was required. Maybe it will catch on. But the impact of the pandemic is more evident in Queenstown, where a magnitude 5.5 earthquake shook parts of Otago and the west coast on Monday night/Tuesday morning, which wouldn’t have been good for the hors d’oeuvres.

There can’t be many more beautiful towns in the world but the streets have been torn up as part of Queenstown Lakes District Council’s town centre street upgrades, which began just before the pandemic struck and so were left unfinished. Streets are closed off and fencing and cones surround excavations and exposed pipes at almost every turn. It will take about 12 months to get the town right again.

Queues are commonplace, and as Queenstown braces itself for next week’s overlap between the school holidays in both New Zealand and Australia, there are fears the town will not be able to cope. As in Ireland, “Staff Wanted” and “We’re Hiring” signs are commonplace after so many foreign people employed in the entertainment industry went home during the early stages of the pandemic and have not returned.

One restaurant has an interesting pitch. Under the words “Superstar Wanted”, its window ad said “Kitchen Hand” and “Chef”, presumably one person to do both.