The last and only time that top flight men’s and women’s rugby had been played behind closed doors, the situation was slightly different. For differing reasons, people might have been wearing masks, players might even have been reticent about taking the field, but there was certainly no global pandemic. There was, however, one common denominator between the two matches: a blizzard-hit Murrayfield.
“There was so much snow on the Murrayfield roof that they were worried about it collapsing. If I remember it right,” says Tim Visser, the former Scotland international who was on the wing for Edinburgh on that “eerie” day in 2010, when no fans saw their home side beat Castres in a Heineken Cup pool match.
It was a similar scenario, too, for England’s trip to Scotland in the women’s Six Nations in February this year. Vicky Fleetwood, England’s rampaging flanker, cannot “remember ever wanting to leave the pitch, other than after that match”, while Emily Scarratt described the conditions as “horrific”. Regardless, Fleetwood says, England acclimatised swiftly
“In the Premier 15s, we often play in places where you’re used to not much of a crowd. When I used to play for Lichfield, it would just be the parents of the players that would be watching - and it wasn’t too long ago that that was the case. That’s what I’ve grown up with. So, we are probably a little more used to it than the Premier League men.”
Her centre team-mate Scarratt agrees: “As much as numbers are growing within the women’s game, it’s not like we’re used to having packed stadiums like the men are. But at the same time it would be really strange to not have anyone on the sidelines except the coaches - and you’d probably get pretty bored of just hearing their voices!”
The men’s match was originally due to be played on Saturday afternoon but, with the apocalyptic weather, it was rescheduled to Monday. A 48-hour delay ordinarily would have posed no problem to a home side who are all based in the city. Unfortunately, as Visser recalls, this was not quite the case for Edinburgh.
“We had our Christmas party booked for Saturday night. Everyone was really excited to play a good game of rugby and then get on the p---,” Visser says.
“The party still happened but we were told not to get too p----- because we might have to play on Monday.”
Impressive self-restraint, then, for a group of rugby players at their Christmas knees-up. But, in 2010, this was an anomaly; both Edinburgh and Castres’ players knew that. For Chris Paterson, Scotland’s former captain and the man completing Edinburgh’s wing duo with Visser that day, the match almost resembled a training game.
“It was quite surreal. Freezing cold, obviously. It was almost like training but it wasn’t because you were actually playing a game,” says the 109-cap international.
“The challenge for the players now is that they’re going to have to do it for a number of weeks. It was a novelty for us as it was a one-off, but there might be a need to look at it tactically. How do you get the normal energy there?”
Scarratt even compared the atmosphere in an empty Murrayfield in February to “doing the team run at Twickenham the day before the match”.
“It was strange having essentially nobody there. It was quite hollow,” she says. “Obviously no one’s there, but it was still an international game. It was pretty strange and different.”
Paterson, who was subbed off just after half-time in the men’s match – “I’m not sure if that was hypothermia or my arthritic hip” – believes that players might have to adapt their mental preparation for this period of “quite sterile” fan-less rugby.
“My mindset didn’t change. It sounds terrible but I shut everything off when I played, no matter whether the stadium was full or empty, whether you were winning or losing,” he says.
“But I know not everyone’s like that and I had team-mates, especially front-five guys, who said they needed the buzz and the energy of the fans to get them up and running. Regardless of whether it was full or empty, I shut it off.”
Paterson recalls one particular incident, however, that was a direct consequence of the lack of fans in the stadium and, in part, the weather. He says that he used to prepare for all eventualities in goal-kicking training – fatigue, converting after scoring, a kick to win the match – but he could never have prepared for this.
“I was standing at the back of my run-up for a conversion and it was dead silent, which was fine, I’d got used to that, but then all I could here was this chinking noise, this chip, chip, chip, and I thought, ‘What on Earth is that?’,” he says.
“I turned around and one of the ground staff was chipping ice off the stairs in the stand! For all the things you prepare for, that’s not one – and I did miss.”
Greig Laidlaw, Edinburgh’s scrum-half that day, echoes Paterson’s ‘sterile’ assessment. He remembers the silence as “one of the strangest things”.
“It’s just a completely different experience compared to anything that you’ve been used to before,” he says. “It was a strange old atmosphere and at times the game felt like it was happening in slow motion.
“Goal-kickers are going to have to get used to kicking in silence. There might be some banter from the other team coming in the kicker’s direction, as well. But players will have been preparing for this for a long time.”
Considering the perceived advantage that a home crowd provides, it might be surprising to hear that both Visser and Laidlaw believe that behind-closed-doors rugby will benefit home teams.
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“Teams having to go away and play in empty stadiums is not going to be the easiest thing to do,” says Visser.
“I spoke to Danny Care and he said, ‘It’s going to be so strange playing at an empty Stoop’. But imagine coming all the way from Sale for that first game at Quins and playing in front of an empty Stoop.
“All the big players love the buzz and they love playing in front of big crowds and, for me, there was always the added incentive of shutting up a home crowd. So, to not have that, and being away from home on what might be a dark and dingy Friday night as we head into autumn, it’s not going to be the easiest thing.”
Japan-bound Laidlaw adds: “It will be easier for home teams in general, but ultimately it just comes back to the team and the environment that it creates. If teams want to go away and win games, and they set their minds to it, there’s no reason why they cannot go and do that.
“With leagues and positions for Europe at stake, it will be different this time around.”
Next week, after the Gallagher Premiership has started to accelerate, we will know for sure.