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Rugby back in Australia with full contact, no fans in stands

Regan Campbell-Gillard, left, of the Parramatta Eels crashes into two tacklers from the Brisbane Broncos in a National Rugby League match Thursday in Brisbane, Australia. (AP photo)

BRISBANE, Australia — With the sound of skin slapping skin and an echoing oomph of air escaping lungs as players collided at pace, the National Rugby League led the charge for elite sports returning to action in Australia.

It was the furthest thing from the strict social distancing regulations that have been the norm in Australia in the coronavirus pandemic.

Parramatta flew in just four hours before kickoff and still beat the Brisbane Broncos 34-6 on Thursday night in an empty Suncorp Stadium, the lack of spectators being a trade-off for the NRL being allowed to resume following a two-month hiatus.

While a TV audience heard artificial crowd noise piped into the broadcast, in real time it was a vastly different experience.

Clear and distinct were on-field exchanges usually drowned out by crowd noise, such as players calling moves and the referee laying down the law.

Australia's Kurtley Beale flies through the air to score a try against New Zealand during their rugby union test match in Sydney in August 2017. (AP file photo)

The opening bone-jarring collision between Parramatta forward Regan Campbell-Gillard and Broncos tacklers signaled a genuine easing of the lockdown when it was broadcast across Australia in prime time. It was the first live action in any elite sport here since March 22.

The 52,500-seat Suncorp Stadium is locally known as The Cauldron, for its infamously unfriendly welcome to visiting teams.

But there was no hostile reception for Parramatta, with only 250 people allowed into the stadium, including players and others deemed necessary.

Caxton Street, which runs toward the stadium and is usually swarming with fans on a game night, was eerily quiet. Restaurants and bars are restricted to a maximum of 10 guests, and fans have been urged not to gather around stadiums, although there were some exceptions.

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