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Full flight . . . Highlander Sio Tomkinson makes a break against the Waratahs during the game. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH

ADAM.BURNS
@alliedpress.co.nz

It only took 23 years but professional rugby finally landed in Central Otago on Friday.

The Highlanders had their first match for the year at Alexandra’s Molyneux Park against the Waratahs as both teams began their respective Super Rugby campaign lead-ins.

The occasion was a significant milestone for the region as the town hosted the Otago-based franchise for the first time.

A bumper crowd of 5600 was entertained by a high-scoring match in which the Highlanders ran away with a 59-38 win.

Outside its Dunedin home base of Forsyth Barr Stadium, the team has occasionally taken regular-season home games to Invercargill and Queenstown.

Pre-season fixtures have also been played in Oamaru and Balclutha.

Helping get the game across the line was Lindsay Breen, managing director of match-day sponsor Breen Construction.

Breen said it was a big commitment to get the Highlanders to Molyneux Park.

“It was a bigger commitment than we are used to with sponsorship.

“We’re very happy we decided to do it.

“We’re all rugby heads as well, so that helps.”

Breen, who is a former Otago representative cricketer, has aided the hosting of first-class cricket fixtures in Alexandra.

The Super Smash double-header on December 30 meant ground staff had to ensure a fair amount of grass grew on the cricket wicket block for the code switch.

As soon as they arrived in town, the Highlanders wasted no time in engaging with the community by hosting a skills and drills session for local children on Thursday.

Some of those youngsters were selected to each host a member of the team at their home for a meal following the skills session.

“The Otago hinterland has a huge fan base,” Breen said.

“A big thing is the kids and how the [Highlanders] engage with them. They do a really good job.”

Breen said the proposition of hosting a regular season Super Rugby game would be a “big step” for the town, but could be achieved if the community got in behind it.

“Given time. We would need community support and it wouldn’t happen quickly.

“Having first-class sport at our venue is pretty motivating.”