Six Nations: Wales return to Principality Stadium after its use as hospital
A typical Six Nations match day in Cardiff is inescapable. It is an all-consuming carnival, the city’s population swelling merrily with the influx of revellers from all parts of Wales and beyond.
Some 74,500 people arrive armed with tickets, thousands more cram into pubs while others simply surf Westgate Street’s sea of red shirts, breathing in the chill winter air, thick with anticipation – and the smell of beer.
The Principality Stadium is the epicentre, all choirs and marching bands; pitch-side flame-throwers warming the stands which teem with raucous fans.
On Sunday, Wales will return after a year away – but to a very different backdrop.
The coronavirus pandemic means Wales have not played at the Principality Stadium since a capacity crowd soundtracked last February’s thrilling encounter with France.
Since then, not a single supporter has passed through the turnstiles of the imposing stadium, which has instead been transformed into a field hospital and now back into a sporting arena.
Having admitted 46 people at the height of the pandemic’s first wave, the Principality Stadium will evoke the anguish of coronavirus with more than just its empty seats this weekend.
When Wales take on Ireland in their opening Six Nations fixture, they will be home – but home will not feel the same.
“It’s a big game to kick it off, back at home at the Principality Stadium, albeit without crowds,” says Wales head coach Wayne Pivac.
“We haven’t been there for some time, and that will be a lift for the players. I’m sure they’re all looking forward to getting back there.”
Captain Alun Wyn Jones can vouch for that: “It’s great to be back at the Principality Stadium. It served a purpose and rightly so but to be back there now, we’re just happy to be back home.”
For much of Friday, 13 March, 2020, it felt like the Welsh Rugby Union was swimming against the tide of global opinion and scientific advice when it insisted Wales’ Six Nations match against Scotland the following day would go ahead.
Later that afternoon, however, the game was postponed and a silence befell the Principality Stadium, which remained empty until the following month when it was turned into a field hospital.
With 600 workers cramming more than 250,000 hours of work into two weeks, the pitch disappeared and, along with thousands of seats, was replaced by a hospital tent eight times larger than Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage.
The 2,000-bed Dragon’s Heart Hospital was the second largest in the UK when it opened on 20 April, and the Principality Stadium remained in the hands of health officials until the process of decommissioning the hospital started in December.
Transformation is nothing new for the stadium, which has hosted Beyonce concerts and monster truck exhibitions as well as international football and rugby since it was opened in 1999 – but this was an overhaul on an unprecedented scale.
Whereas pitches had previously been covered for non-sporting events, this time a brand-new playing surface was required. The grass was grown in Yorkshire over six months and it took four days to install the turf, which is now bedded in and ready for action.
“This was a different level,” says the stadium manager, Mark Williams.
“We started the planning cycle of this with the NHS and Mott MacDonald, the army were involved and about 30 members of my stadium staff were involved in the project throughout. It was around-the-clock work, 24/7.
“It was a huge collaborative effort but I have to say we were all very proud to have helped both the NHS and the people of Wales in the time of national emergency.
To watch Wales at an empty Parc y Scarlets – their temporary 15,000-capacity home in Llanelli in recent months – was strange enough.
To watch the team stride on to the Principality Stadium pitch to the sight of empty stands and the sound of silence – rather than the usual riot of colour and noise – will rob the occasion of its sense of reality, never mind its sense of occasion.
However unsettling that feeling, though, Wales will do all they can to restore some semblance of normality.
“What we’ll try to do is recreate the atmosphere,” says Rhys ap William, the stadium announcer.
“We’ll replicate exactly what we do [on a normal match day]. That special anthem has been recorded because nobody can come and sing it. They’ve also taken recordings from previous Wales-Ireland matches, the noises the fans make, so we’ve got that to play as well.
“We want to give Wales any advantage against Ireland we can.”
However marginal the gain, Wales will gladly take it.
They endured a miserable 2020, losing seven of their 10 matches and only managing wins against Italy – twice – and Georgia.
There were numerous facets of the game where Wales struggled – attack, defence, the breakdown, you name it – and Pivac believes adapting to playing behind closed doors is another area where they could improve.
“It’s something behind the scenes we’ve been looking at to make sure on game day we can replicate everything we can from a normal Principality Stadium experience, minus the fans,” the New Zealander says.
“It is a different occasion – you can’t hide away from that, it’s not the same. It’s not the same level of enjoyment as having that sea of faces, that sea of red and the singing and the support we get. It’s definitely a 16th man.
“That’s out the window and it’s the same for everybody, so it’s making sure we prepare the best we can and learn from the last campaign without fans.”
Ireland’s last visit to Cardiff in 2019 feels a lifetime ago; a packed Principality Stadium toasting Wales’ Grand Slam with a party in the rain.
Welsh success and huge crowds now seem like distant memories but, for Wales, a return home on Sunday – different as it may be – will be a start, a small step towards a paradise regained.
© The Fan Experience Company 2020