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Sport The quiet sadness in Cardiff as a Six Nations like no other kicks off with no fans

01:35  07 february  2021
01:35  07 february  2021 Source:   walesonline.co.uk

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The Six Nations kicked off with no fans today with England taking on Scotland in the Calcutta Cup at an empty Twickenham stadium. Earlier France trounced Italy by a stonking 50 points to 10 at a similarly quiet contest at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome. England 6-11 Scotland: Eddie Jones' men suffer a shock defeat in their Six Nations opener at Twickenham as they are beaten by the old enemy on home soil for first time in 38 years.

image captionSome South Wales Police officers will be on horseback while revellers and fans flood into the city centre on Friday. image captionOne Wales fan went a step further and donned a daffodil jumper. image captionA father and son soak up the pre-match atmosphere in Cardiff ahead of the highly-anticipated game. image captionA young fan wore a dragon hat, which will keep him warm as temperature plummet on match night. image captionThe media take their spots on the pitch before the game kicked off . image captionInflatable leeks and daffodils at a Wales rugby match are a must-have.

Today, the Welsh International Rugby team begins its campaign for the Six Nations trophy.

But this year there is one crucial difference - the games are being held behind closed doors.

Instead of Cardiff being thronged with fans and European visitors drinking, singing and enjoying life, the hubbub is replaced by empty seats, deserted streets and silence

It is difficult to imagine Cardiff without the Six Nations as we know it - for decades, the two have been synonymous.

In ‘normal’ times, before the coronavirus pandemic ground the world to a stop, the tournament has been a saving grace to see out the bleak winter months.

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Even last year, much of the tournament had been played before thousands of Scottish and Welsh fans infamously travelled to the capital to be told the game was off.

This year, rugby clubs across the country will be empty, fans will be watching from home, and Cardiff will be a ghost town.

a view of a city street filled with lots of traffic: Crwos gather as the Welsh team arrives at The Principality Stadium for their 2020 clash with Italy © Mark Lewis/Huw Evans Agency Crwos gather as the Welsh team arrives at The Principality Stadium for their 2020 clash with Italy a man wearing a hat: A fan ahead of the 2019 game between Wales and Ireland © Aled Llywelyn/Huw Evans Agency A fan ahead of the 2019 game between Wales and Ireland

At her regular spot on St Mary's Street, Irene Quelch has painted the cheeks of thousands of fans during her six years as a match day face painter.

“I go every year, every home game - I’ve got my regular spot. Between me, the scarf sellers, the door men who let us in to use the toilets, we’re all one big family.

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“It’s just great fun, it’s a buzz. You see all the away supporters, all the home fans, I always see my local rugby team go by - it’s a brilliant atmosphere.

“Some of the people you meet are just brilliant. The Irish fans are so friendly and love a laugh, the French are always trying to give you food, it’s hilarious - I was even blessed by a pope one year.

“I don’t go a year without going now, it’s such a good carnival atmosphere."

a person holding a kite while standing in front of a house: “It’s just not nice to think about what it’s going to be like this year. It’s going to be like a ghost town. © Richard Swingler “It’s just not nice to think about what it’s going to be like this year. It’s going to be like a ghost town. a person standing in front of a building: Irene Quelch has been a face painter on match days for six years © Richard Swingler Irene Quelch has been a face painter on match days for six years

Irene from Caldicot began travelling to Cardiff for the games when she noticed trade was dipping when Wales were playing.

“I started to notice that I wasn’t getting much business for children's parties on weekends when the rugby was on, so I decided to take the business to the people.

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Six Nations 2021: Wales v Ireland. Venue: Principality Stadium, Cardiff Date: Sunday, 7 February Kick - off : 15:00 GMT. Coverage: Live on BBC One, BBC Radio Wales, BBC Radio Cymru, BBC iPlayer & Radio 5 Live Sports Extra, BBC Radio Ulster, BBC Sport website and app, S4C. The squad returned negative tests on Tuesday and reported a repeat of that on Friday morning. Wales return to Cardiff 's Principality Stadium for the tournament opener. The game will be played behind closed doors with no fans present.

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“The Six Nations so from February to March times gives me the boost to get out of the winter where there’s not much business until after February half term.

“I’ve lost about three quarters of my usual earnings over the last year. I think we were hoping it would all come through by the spring but we soon realised that wouldn’t be the case."

Irene says it's alien to think that the game itself will be going on as usual in the stadium but no fans will be allowed in to watch.

“It’s just not nice to think about what the city is going to be like this year. It’s going to be a ghost town.

a group of people walking on a city street: Empty streets in Cardiff as coronavirus lockdown continues. © WalesOnline/Rob Browne Empty streets in Cardiff as coronavirus lockdown continues. a person wearing a hat © Aled Llywelyn/Huw Evans Agency

“It’s awful to think that inside the stadium the game will be going on but with no fans. No singing, no passion, no atmosphere - it’s just sad.

Pub boss Jonathan Bassett, who owns JW Bassett venues in Cardiff and Newport, says it's difficult to imagine the city without the usual atmosphere that comes with the tournament.

"I can’t think of a year where Cardiff isn’t completely taken over by rugby every weekend, for six weeks," said Jonathan.

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“I just can’t imagine it, it’s so odd to think that the game will be going on inside the stadium but just outside everything will be so quiet.

“The only word I can use to describe it usually is electric. Cardiff is just the best place for rugby because the stadium is just on the doorstep, right in the centre of the city.

a man standing in front of a table: Jon Bassett says he gets more trade when Wales rugby team are playing away, than when Wales football team play at home © Mirrorpix Jon Bassett says he gets more trade when Wales rugby team are playing away, than when Wales football team play at home

"I go all over for rugby and in some cases you have to go sort of 10 miles or so out of the city but in Cardiff the atmosphere across the whole city is just incredible."

Jonathan runs the Queens Vaults pub which is a stone's throw away from the Principality Stadium. He says that even when Wales are playing away, during the Six Nations the pub is still fit to burst.

However, he says that missing out on the trade from the tournament is a "drop in the ocean" compared to business they have lost during the coronavirus pandemic.

"We’ve been open something like 15 weeks out of 52 in the last year, this is just another drop in the ocean," he said.

“The thing is, it’s not just one day on the weekend, the crowds usually get started on Thursday night, and we’ll still have people here on a Monday afternoon.

"To put how big it is into perspective - at the Queens Vaults, even on an away day, we can make more money when Wales are playing in England than we do when Wales football team are playing an FA cup game in the Principality Stadium over the road."

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a group of people are drinking from a wine glass: Fans watching Wales in a pub in Cardiff © Richard Swingler Fans watching Wales in a pub in Cardiff

However, Jonathan also muses on how the tournament would have looked had pubs been allowed to open.

"An international day with restrictions is difficult too, you have to ask yourself would that realistically work. You worry what it’s going to be like when you come back too, what pubs are going to look like.

"Cardiff on international day is just so vibrant, and to be frank, vibrancy and restrictions don’t really go well together.

“It’s a difficult one because at one point you’re thinking about what could happen, and opening up with restrictions and then you’re also thinking ‘are we ever going to get match days back as they were’".

a man standing next to a fence: A Scotland fan in a kilt is pictured outside a deserted Principality Stadium after the 2020 Guinness Six Nations match between Wales and Scotland at Principality Stadium was cancelled © Getty Images A Scotland fan in a kilt is pictured outside a deserted Principality Stadium after the 2020 Guinness Six Nations match between Wales and Scotland at Principality Stadium was cancelled a narrow city street with an umbrella walking in the rain: An empty High Street as coronavirus restrictions continue © Matthew Horwood An empty High Street as coronavirus restrictions continue

The tournament proves to be such an event in Cardiff, that fans from all other five nations competing often spend up to a week in the city soaking up the atmosphere in the lead up to the game.

One person who knows this all too well is Richard Smith, the General Manager of The Angel Hotel on Castle Street, one of the nearest hotels to the stadium.

Each year, on game day, the hotel lobby often plays hosts to male voice choirs from across Wales and is packed to the brim all day.

"This time of year, we’d usually be full from the Tuesday or Wednesday until the following week, lots of people don’t just come for the weekend," said Richard.

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"Depending what game is on but a lot of fans come for the whole week to stay, the French and The Irish stay the longest."

"On the day of the game, the lobby is just absolutely rammed, the atmosphere is incredible. It’s usually so busy that you can’t see the floor. We have the choirs in, the fans, it’s just singing - it’s magnificent to see.

a group of people in front of a large crowd of people: The lobby of The Angel Hotel on a match day © The Angel Hotel The lobby of The Angel Hotel on a match day

“Usually every function room would be full, every bar, we’d be looking at over 800 covers for food and drink on a match day. It’s just an electric atmosphere, it’s awe inspiring.

"For us, the English and Irish games are always the busiest but that being said, for the six weeks that the tournament is on we could probably sell all the rooms twice over.

"This year will be weird, there’s no buzz about it, there’s been no hype about it."

Richard says that choosing to hold the tournament behind closed doors means the hospitality industry will completely miss out of trade. There had been hoped by many that it would be postponed.

“It’s sad but we understand it. It's the worst decision financially for us," he said.

a group of people walking down the street in front of a crowd: Thousands would usually be making their way to the stadium. © Richard Swingler Thousands would usually be making their way to the stadium. a group of people walking down the street on a rainy day: A person walks down an empty St. Mary Street in January 2021 © Matthew Horwood A person walks down an empty St. Mary Street in January 2021

"If it had been postponed we would at least have been able to have the trade later in the year but right now we’re missing out completely.

"We’ve had some trade over the last year with contractors who have been working at the millennium field hospital but ultimately it’s so quiet.

"I think we were all hoping it would go ahead as it’s just a great time, most of the staff working here haven;t known a February with no rugby."

With the games usually over and done with by the evening, thousands of fans spill out of the stadium and straight to the nearest pub or bar to continue their night.

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But for those who decide to end their night early, the taxi queue is usually the first point of call.

During the coronavirus pandemic taxi drivers have been the worst affected, sometimes making as little as £15 in an eight hour shift.

In a year when people have been urged to stay at home, drivers have been faced with a desperate situation - and are again missing out on a busy period.

a person standing in front of a car: Firas Mahmoud, Taxi driver in Cardiff © WalesOnline/Rob Browne Firas Mahmoud, Taxi driver in Cardiff a group of people walking on a city street: People queue for taxis on St. Mary's Street after 25-7 Six Nations victory against Ireland in the Principality Stadium. © Wales News Service People queue for taxis on St. Mary's Street after 25-7 Six Nations victory against Ireland in the Principality Stadium.

Firas Mahmoud a driver in Cardiff, says that not only are they missing the trade on match day, but also the tourists that visit the city.

"They’re coming from different places and they enjoy Welsh rugby and enjoy Cardiff and for business it’s very good," said Mahmoud.

"We have the best city with the Six nations and the best crowds, I remember the world cup, it was great.

“It’s very busy. People come to the city and book hotels and we take them to Cardiff Bay, to Saint Fagans - they visit tourist places too."

Firas says that despite the tournament going ahead, restrictions mean it will just be a 'normal' weekend for him now.

“It’s going to be absolutely different this year. With lockdown the only people now in town are local people who come here and do their shopping and go home.

"It’s going to be sad, but just a ‘normal’ weekend for us now. But we hope that in one or two months it will be better. Without hope there is no life.

"It’s difficult for business, for the city, for everyone. It’s not just difficult for income but also for seeing people."

While every business has suffered at the hands of the pandemic, ones who rely solely on footfall have been some of the hardest hit.

It's difficult to think of a street that will be hardest hit without matchday footfall than Caroline Street - or "Chippy Alley".

In a usual year, the takeaways on the street will be busy throughout the day to the early morning providing fans with much needed sustenance to see them through.

But this year, not only will there be no fans to feed, but there will be barely any footfall full stop.

The city is so void of the usual Six Nations excitement that Tamer Ali a Tony's fish bar on Caroline street was unaware it was starting this weekend.

a man standing in front of a counter: Irene Quelch has been a face painter on match days for six years © WalesOnline/Rob Browne Irene Quelch has been a face painter on match days for six years a group of people standing in a room: Wales fans on © Wales News Service Wales fans on

"It’s starting this weekend? Where are the people? It's sad, we’re usually really busy.

“There are usually crowds, we used to only make money on weekends, they were big weekends.

"We’d make money only on match days, other days were rubbish. The games and crowds made it busy."

"The last year has been so quiet. Since last March we’ve only been open a few hours a day, we do delivery but with no people in the streets in the city centre it's hard.

"Maybe it will be busy again next year. We are hopeful that things will open again properly in a few months."

The new Welsh rugby transfer signings and deals now confirmed in 2021 .
Each of the four Welsh regions have completed transfer and contract business in recent weeksVarious transfers and contract extensions have been announced throughout January and during the Six Nations.

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