It was a year ago this week that the Wales v Scotland Six Nations game in Cardiff was postponed at the 11th hour as the Covid-19 crisis mounted.
On Saturday, March 7, 2020, Wayne Pivac’s Wales had lost 33-30 to England at Twickenham. The following weekend, they were due to conclude their Six Nations campaign against Scotland at the Principality Stadium on Saturday, March 14. It was a sell-out match, with 74,000 fans expected. We’ve spoken to the key people involved in making the decision to call off the game and can reveal exactly what went on behind the scenes.
The week before
WRU chief executive Martyn Phillips and chairman Gareth Davies were both at Twickers. Little did they realise the tumultuous week that lay in store for them.
“Boris Johnson attended the England game, which was clearly a statement that not only had he allowed the match to go ahead but he was happy to attend himself,” Phillips told Gist Vile.
“We were actually sat on the same table as him talking about nothing else other than Covid. Nobody was shaking hands. That weekend was the start of the elbow bump.”
Former Wales fly-half Davies adds: “We were all at Twickenham on the Saturday. We had lost, you come back and basically there’s the last match on the following weekend. It all evolved very quickly from there.”
Monday, March 9
Going into the week of the Scotland game, WRU policy was very clear: “The only sensible thing to do was to follow Government advice because we are not medical experts,” said Phillips.
“And the advice was to play the game. But Italy v England had already been pulled and then, on the Monday, France v Ireland was postponed as well. So we are now the last game standing in the Six Nations. Clearly we were having lots of debate. But the view was if government are saying they are happy for the game to go ahead, it’s difficult for us to have an opinion that’s different to expert medical opinion.”
Then, on the Monday evening, the alarm bells began to ring for Davies.
“My daughter is a paediatric consultant in Cardiff and she said ‘are you happy about this game going ahead?'” he reveals.
“I said ‘oh well, everybody is saying the open air is not a problem. Twickenham was full on Saturday, Cheltenham is going on this week, the Premier League is going on’. But what she said put a little bit of doubt in my mind. You start thinking ‘bloody hell, these cases are going up and up’. I was coming round to the thinking that this is a big risk.”
Tuesday, March 10
Come the Tuesday morning, Davies decided it was time to speak afresh to the Welsh Government.
“There was a lot of chatter going on now,” he said.
“A board member rang me to say he had a cousin who had been planning to come to the game, but now wasn’t coming and he was a medic. So there was like a slow growth in doubt, if you like. I contacted Mark Drakeford’s office and they put me in touch with Dr Frank Atherton, the chief medical officer for Wales.
“He was very helpful in describing what the science was at the time. His message was the science indicated mass gatherings in open air wouldn’t present a threat. That was what was regarded to be the case. Who am I to doubt him as the chief medical officer? He sort of put my mind at ease to a degree.”
Meanwhile, Phillips was liaising with the Welsh management.
“The players and coaches were trying to prepare for a big game of rugby,” he said.
“But, obviously, with the other Six Nations matches having been postponed, they would have been wondering whether our game would be cancelled too. The arrangement we had was Martyn Williams [team manager] and I would speak and until such point as the game isn’t on, Wayne should just concentrate on his preparations and assume the match is on. So Martyn and I were talking two or three times a day, but always saying the advice is still what it is.”
Wednesday, March 11
Another day, another set of discussions.
“Things were developing”, Davies said. “More and more people were beginning to ask questions. I had a conversation with Mark Drakeford, who basically was in the same position as Dr Frank Atherton.
“He was saying this is the science and the medical advice we are following, this is what we have at the moment. I remember saying to him there was a lot of nervousness around and that we could be in a position where we would have to postpone the game.
“He was fine and basically said that is your decision. I spoke with Martyn and we agreed it shouldn’t just be a decision for the two of us. So we decided to call a board meeting for the Thursday.”
At the same time, there were major logistics to consider.
“We didn’t want to order the food and drink for 75,000 fans because we knew there was a possibility the game would be cancelled,” said Phillips.
“So we arranged with all our suppliers that we would place our orders on the Thursday lunchtime.”
Thursday, March 12
Come Thursday morning, the Welsh Government was meeting and the WRU was waiting for news ahead of holding their own board meeting.
Phillips recalls: “The Welsh Government came out and said this is clearly escalating but we are not at a point where we think we need to postpone events, although that could happen in the weeks ahead. So the narrative had changed, but it hadn’t changed for the weekend.
“The government were happy for the game to go ahead and I think [health minister] Vaughan Gething said he was planning to be there. On the back of that, we had our board meeting at lunchtime on the Thursday.
“It was definitely one of those 51-49 decisions where we are sitting there and saying this is really, really marginal. But the Welsh Government were saying they were happy for the game to go ahead. So on what basis would we choose to go against that?
“There were different voices on the board, but on balance we decided to go ahead. So we came out of that meeting and ordered all the food for 75,000 people, plus all the drink and away we go. We then put out a statement saying we had decided to go ahead with the game.”
Giving his recollections of the board meeting, Davies said: “I explained I’d had discussions with government and the feeling was that open-air events were OK. We were all in a position of ‘who are we to argue with the advice?’ So we agreed to plough ahead.
“We looked at what else was going on and it was quite a busy weekend of sport. There was all the Premier League matches, all the EFL matches, Rangers were playing Celtic, the Australian Grand Prix was on and the Players Championship golf was on in Sawgrass. So major events.”
Phillips added: “Certain things had been cancelled, but the Premier League was still planning to go ahead and so was the Old Firm derby. So we got ourselves comfortable.”
By now the situation was becoming very political.
Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price was calling for the game to be postponed, saying: “The safety of our citizens – including the most vulnerable and at risk of coronavirus – must be put before everything else.”
He called for the Welsh Government to take “urgent and aggressive action” rather “than waiting for instruction from London”.
“All mass gatherings and events should be postponed or cancelled with immediate effect,” he said.
But, speaking at a press conference on Thursday afternoon, health minister Gething was standing his ground. He said: “The challenge about larger events is the science doesn’t tell us it really makes a difference either in significantly delaying the peak of the outbreak or indeed in terms of saving life.”
He added that politicians, including those in opposition, should take a “responsible approach” and should not try to suggest “there is public health advice to take a step when actually it does not exist”.
Meanwhile, the Scottish team were on their way to Cardiff, having turned up at Edinburgh Airport wearing protective gloves.
“I do understand that things move fast, but we’re two days away so it would be a surprise if the game was called off this late,” said their coach Gregor Townsend.
As of the Thursday, there were 25 people confirmed to have coronavirus in Wales.
Friday, March 13
This was to be a day few involved will forget.
“By Friday morning, the whole sporting world had changed,” said Davies.
“All the Premier League games had been called off, the EFL games had been pulled, Rangers-Celtic was off, the Australian Grand Prix was off and the Players Championship was pulled after one day. So here we were now, the last man standing.”
Preparations for Saturday afternoon’s game were still very much under way, as Phillips recalls.
“On the Friday morning, I was down at the captain’s run at the stadium,” he said.
“Some of the journalists were pulling my leg saying you are going to get amazing viewing figures this weekend because you are the only sport happening in Europe. I was watching the boys train and WillGriff John sticks in my mind because it was going to be his first cap. It was quite odd. It just felt different to normal. You almost got the sense the players were thinking ‘is this really going to go ahead?’
“They didn’t quite have the focus you would normally see with them. I am sure they were trying to, but they were definitely not themselves.
“That finished at about 12 noon. Then, as I went back to my desk, I was updated to say the Premier League had stood down and so had the Old Firm derby. I remember it like it was yesterday. I thought ‘I am going to go and have a coffee’. I walked across to the Hayes and got a coffee in Starbucks and I was sat there with all these Scottish fans around.
“It was a very complex situation. Our supporters wanted the game to happen, there were Scottish fans in town already, the players and coaches were ready to go. You are thinking if we cancel this we are sort of going against the guidance from our own government. You can get yourself lost.
“But you learn over the years to strip it right back. Ultimately what really matters is people’s wellbeing and health and we couldn’t put ourselves in the position of this game being subsequently found to be the source of a major outbreak. I remember thinking we just can’t play it.
“Then you get into the whole ‘oh my God, the consequences of that decision’. I was walking back to the stadium and I rang Gareth and I said I don’t think we should play the game. In fairness to him, he said ‘do you know what? I have got to the same place’.
“I then rang Mark Dodson, my Scottish counterpart, and said this is where our thinking has got to and he was brilliant. He said he totally understood and would support our decision. Ben Morel at the Six Nations was the same.”
It was then a case of formally doing the deed.
“I was in the house when Martyn rang,” said Davies.
“We agreed that we can’t risk this, we would be the pariahs of the country if things go badly. So we called another board meeting. I spoke to Mark Drakeford just before going into that meeting and said with what had happened overnight and in the morning I was going to recommend we postpone.
“I said it clearly isn’t ideal the day before, but I just think pulling it is the responsible thing to do. He was fine and said ‘that’s your decision, we won’t go against you’. So we went to the board meeting and everybody was in the same mood by that stage.
“We were obviously horrified by the situation. Scottish supporters had arrived in Cardiff by that time and you felt for them.”
Phillips added: “We called the board meeting for 1pm and agreed the right thing to do was to cancel the game. That’s what we did.”
It was around 2pm the news broke, pretty much exactly 24 hours ahead of the scheduled 2.15pm Saturday kick-off.
“I spent the rest of the day speaking to stakeholders and explaining the decisions,” former chief executive Phillips said.
“We had no time, we had a couple of hours to get a huge amount done. We ended up giving a lot of food away. Gareth said he would pick up the media side of things and he had a pretty difficult time because of the lateness of it.”
Davies confirms as much.
“That wasn’t a pleasant experience,” he says.
“One or two of the journalists were, understandably, asking some tough questions. They were saying they had just been talking to half a dozen Scottish supporters who had paid £500 to come down and you have just pulled the game. They were asking why has it taken you so long.
“So I had a bit of a tough time with the media on that one. But it was a rapidly moving environment. My mantra was if it’s the right thing to do, do it.”
As for Phillips, he has one more memory of that extraordinary day.
“It was my wife’s birthday that weekend, so I had arranged to take her out for a meal on the Friday night,” he said.
“We were in this restaurant and everyone else there was wearing either Scottish or Welsh jerseys. I could literally hear every conversation at the tables next to us and there was only one topic. They were saying whoever runs the WRU doesn’t know what they are doing. I was just sat there listening to these comments, which was a bit odd when you think they are talking about me!”
The immediate aftermath
Scotland fans who had arrived in Cardiff had now been left without a reason to have travelled south, while the postponement was probably the first in a series of wake-up calls as to how serious the Covid situation was becoming.
The day after Wales v Scotland should have taken place – on Sunday, March 15 – the Welsh Government’s health minister Vaughan Gething gave a radio interview where he said the “WRU found themselves in a pretty extraordinary position”, but said the “medical advice about the risk to people going to the rugby didn’t change”.
“What did change was the fact that the rest of sporting world decided that, regardless of that advice, they wanted to put off events,” he said.
And there was, of course, still a match to be played.
“We were thinking we would just run it in a month or six weeks,” said Phillips.
“We didn’t refund the tickets straight away because we thought it would have been relatively simple to re-schedule.
“If you remember, the first lockdown was for three weeks. So we thought we would get it played before the end of the season.”
As it turned out, it wasn’t to be played until October 31 and behind closed doors at Parc y Scarlets, with the Principality Stadium having been converted into the Dragon’s Heart field hospital.
These were unprecedented times, as shown by the fact the UK went into lockdown nine days after Wales v Scotland was scheduled to be played.
A year on
We asked the Welsh Government for a comment to go with this article looking back on the postponement.
They gave us the following statement: “The clear public health advice at the time, including from SAGE, was that cancelling mass gatherings was not required. As soon as the expert advice changed, we acted upon it. The whole of the UK moved to postpone mass gatherings on the same day.”
So what of Davies and Phillips? Well, they have both left the WRU now after six and five years in their positions respectively. Having moved on, how do they view the events of 12 months ago?
“You look back now with hindsight and you say we should have pulled the game sooner,” admits Davies.
“But the knowledge, the intelligence wasn’t there. We were all working in a totally alien environment. Having to make those decisions in a rapidly changing environment, with all those variants, was a real tough one. With the info we had at the time, I would have probably done the same thing again. It was a challenging time because it wasn’t a black or white decision.
“There was no great PR in pulling the game a day before and there were financial consequences. But it was the right thing to do. Imagine if we hadn’t called it off.”
Davies added: “It was really early days in the pandemic. Mark Drakeford and the Welsh Government were probably trying to behave and act as a united front with the UK. I’m not saying our call made them change, but do I wonder if it was one of the issues that made him and Welsh Government go their own way and say sorry we’ve got our own people to protect here.”
The final word goes to the Southampton-based Phillips.
“My reflection looking back is the best decision would have been to cancel it on the Thursday,” he said.
“But if I had my time over, I would still have done what we did. Sometimes changing your mind is actually harder than making a decision. You don’t know. We could have saved lives that day. The worst decision would have been just to keep our heads down and carry on.
“We could have exposed people to risks they shouldn’t have been exposed to. So I am glad we did what we did. It was right up there with one of the most difficult decisions you have to make in a job like that. There was no playbook. We didn’t know what a pandemic or a lockdown was.
“In the end, it cost several million not to stage the game. But money was never really part of the conversation. It was almost a life and death decision. We could have been responsible for a very serious outbreak. There are people around today who may not have been around if we had played that game.
“So if you look at it through that lens, yes rugby is important, but it’s not that important. Reputationally, changing the decision on the Friday wasn’t great for me, but it was still the right decision. As I sit here today, I am really pleased we did what we did. It’s fair to say it’s not a week I’m going to forget in a hurry.”