It will soon likely be the new norm, rugby matches eerily played behind closed doors. World Rugby paved the way the other day for the post-coronavirus comeback, releasing an in-depth 29-page document setting the framework for the sport’s return around the world.
It’s mostly a tentative step into the unknown, playing matches at empty stadiums, but it’s not unprecedented. Take the Heineken Champions Cup. It was ten years ago next December when the tournament broke new ground just five days before Christmas, Edinburgh edging a spectator-less Monday afternoon cracker with a converted 77th minute try versus Castres.
Snow and ice – not a virus – had been that weekend’s spoilsport but rather than the visiting French nipping away home that Sunday evening with intentions to return at some future date, plans were hastily made for a rendezvous the very next day, the catch being that not a soul who wasn’t playing, coaching, refereeing, administrating or broadcasting would be looking on.
World Rugby’s upcoming restart aims to cater for a maximum of 167 people, including the respective XVs, but there was way fewer on deck that baltic winter’s day in the Scottish capital when the attendance went into the European rugby history books as a big fat zero.
Murrayfield had never been a ground regularly bursting at the seams when the local club featured. Just short of 5,000 were there to watch their previous home European encounter, an October loss to Northampton. But all the same, having the 67,000 capacity stadium completely empty was quite a sight.
Tim Visser, who opened the try-scoring that weird 2010 day, remembers the surreal occasion and wonders how the players of today will now adjust at having to perform minus the atmosphere of a crowd and all the rest of the hype that goes hand in hand with any big match day.
“To get some revenue back into the game they need to start playing,” he told RugbyPass. “There are huge TV rights at every level nowadays so to get some value and revenue streams back, playing in front of empty stadiums is better than nothing. People will watch it on TV.
“The spectator experience at some of these big stadiums, even Quins on a Saturday afternoon, was just a wonderful family experience and people will miss that. But what is more important, watching a game of rugby or death? It’s just the way it is at the moment.
“It was just before Christmas,” he continued, harking back to his own experience of playing with not even two men and a dog watching on. “There was some really heavy snow and the game got called off. There were safety concerns about the roof and whatever else at Murrayfield.
“We had our Christmas party planned for that night after the game. We heard Castres were staying behind because the game had to be played if at all possible. We still had the Christmas party – obviously, we didn’t drink – but it was definitely harder for them than it was for us.
“We were still around our families close to Christmas, but they had to sit in the hotel for two days and then go into an empty Murrayfield and face us. We were really wanting to play that game, we loved having the French over and they don’t travel well in any case. They did not want to be there. It was still cold. There was still snow and ice.
“As a player, of course you want to be playing in sold-out stadiums, but as soon as the whistle went, whether there were ten or 10,000 people it didn’t make a difference to me because I was normally just so focused that you didn’t really notice it.
“Obviously after the game and if you score a try, it’s great to have people cheering, but for the game, for the players, I can’t see it making a huge difference looking ahead to what is going to happen. I might be wrong. Some people are more wound up when there are people watching. They thrive on that.
“There is certainly big game players that love playing in front of people but I never really struggled with that, playing at a Murrayfield with 5,000 or 10,000 people when there could have been 67,000. I just thought, ‘Great pitch, love playing here’. I genuinely didn’t give a f***. That’s the attitude players are going to have going into these games. It’s better than nothing, I guess.”
It was around this time last year that Visser announced he would quit playing. He’d already called time on his 33-cap Scotland Test career in 2017 and although still only in his early 30s, he felt the end of the 2018/19 season with Harlequins was perfect to bow out altogether.
Twelve months on he has no regrets the boots were clinically slung to the side, never to be worn again. Lockdown has put his new career in property development on hold, but there are no ifs, buts and maybes about his sporting past. Set to turn 33 at the end of May, he is very much at peace with his decision to leave it all behind, to forge a different path on his terms.
“I was never too bothered with the rugby going on without me,” explained the Dutchman who made an October 2006 Premiership debut with Newcastle before moving north of the border to Edinburgh in 2009, the city where he is now living again following the four-season stint at Harlequins that brought the curtain down on a career where his nose for sniffing out tries was hugely coveted.
“I was always very aware that rugby is very much a business transaction. Clubs pay you because they need something from you and vice-versa, so when I finished I was very aware that players are a commodity and I was a commodity at the team I left and there would be someone else to fill my boots. That is just the nature of the work.
“In that regard, it has been no real issue. I expected that. What was tricky at the start was the lack of routine. As a rugby player you’re very institutionalised from getting in for breakfast to training to straight back home, it’s a very scheduled day. Suddenly waking up and not having that structure, being able to decide what you want to do sounds brilliant but very quickly it becomes quite tricky. It messes with your head a little bit.
“A lot of rugby players have a very high need to achieve and unless you get that every day that is tricky to work with. I realised that after six to eight weeks. I went to Holland for the summer, spent some time around my family. I took three months out. I thought I’m so sick of training, I don’t want to do any more weights, don’t want to do any more fitness, I’m not doing anything.
“I’m just going to chill and enjoy my time on my boat and whatever else. But I very quickly realised I do need fitness, I do need to train, I do need some structure to my day and I certainly do need something to achieve, so I set up a property development company with a good friend from London, an investor.
Thanks for giving me the honour of representing such an amazing country! See you in Edinburgh soon! https://t.co/0u8Asc3J6B
— Tim Visser (@timbovisser) May 17, 2019
“As soon as I moved back to Edinburgh we really hit the ground running. We’re on project four and five and five at the moment. Obviously completely hindered by coronavirus. Everything in building sites is on lockdown, so we can’t currently work but as soon as that is lifted we are back on it because we were in a real flow.
“That was really good for my perspective because we make awful apartments look beautiful again and sell them to very grateful owners and investors alike. It’s a really nice thing to be a part of and it gives me something to work on, to achieve every day which has been massively helpful for me. You still very frequently have beautiful city centre tenement flats in Edinburgh. People are genuinely dying in there and the estate being sold on. There are seven, eight layers of wallpaper, olive green bathrooms, that kind of stuff.
“They are just screaming to be upgraded and put back onto the market because there are first-time buyers everywhere looking for beautiful property but not having the means to covert them themselves. If you look at what we provide and for the value that we provide it for, it’s really a service and we have had some really lovely first-time buyers into our flats.”
Visser was always planning for the day rugby would stop providing a salary. He made sure he got his business degree and was constantly on the work experience carousel, building up the various experiences that have now helped him so successfully make the awkward transition from playing to quickly nailing an alternative career.
With rugby around the world now in a state of flux, the ex-Scotland international’s phone has been buzzing regularly with numerous current players sounding him out for advice amid anxiety for their future. “I’ve had quite a lot of people contact me from the rugby world asking what I’m doing and how can they do it, how can they invest in property and be involved in that world.
“It’s been good fun speaking to other players and helping to educate them on what they want to do and how they can do it. It’s nice to pass my knowledge on, especially with what is happening at the moment.
“I always had a passion for property. I bought my first flat when I was 18 and still have that and have been building a portfolio ever since. What a lot of rugby players need to ask themselves is rather than what can I do, they need to think about what do I want to do.
“We have always been very fortunate and very passionate about rugby and if you just go into something after rugby because you can do it you very quickly lost that passion. Whereas if you find something that you want to do it won’t feel like a job and that is what I feel like every day.
Simply wonderful! https://t.co/wMOnmPExcA
— Tim Visser (@timbovisser) March 26, 2020
“I wake up and I go, ‘What do I need to do today? It’s ‘I need to go to this property and I need to get the contractors in there’. It just doesn’t feel like work, it feels like I’m arranging something that I love doing.”
For now, though, Visser quips that the focus is keeping the peace during the lockdown. “Finn is two, Josh is four – it’s pretty mental as you can imagine,” he said of his all-action sons. “Two boys just constantly fighting each other. I’m literally a police officer around here.
“At the start of the lockdown we [Visser and wife his Laura] kind of just free-wheeled it a bit but quickly realised we – and more importantly – the kids need some structure so it has been alright. We start every day with a bit of exercising, I do a HIIT (high-intensity interval training) class with some old Quins boys about three times a week, first thing in the garden, eight o’clock in the morning which is pretty good craic over Zoom.
“I’m able to get the kids out in the garden and I have been doing a lot of DIY, erecting fences, building decks and that kind of stuff. That keeps me sane. It feels like I’m achieving something every day, that I have made some something nice or built something from scratch.”
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now