How flexible thinking helped the RFU succeed during lockdown
The business of rugby stopped at the start of the pandemic, but the RFU’s ability to adapt on and off the pitch has taught them lessons they can use in the future
When the world shut down, so did most offices, which isn’t easy when your ‘office’ is an international sports stadium. “When you’ve got an 82,000-seater stadium that is extremely complex,” explains Mark Lynch, Venue Director at Twickenham Stadium. “It’s not just switching off a light bulb. We tested our systems, ensured we could work from home, and then mothballed the stadium.”
Working remotely, communication carried on virtually, and was successful enough to enable them to come together quickly for the Autumn Nations Cup.
The importance of agility
The RFU has had to flex many times. First turning the stadium into a Covid-19 test centre, and then into an NHS vaccination centre – for one day.
“There was a surge in the Delta variant in Hounslow and they gave us six days’ notice,” explains Mark. “We worked out a plan to get 11,000 people vaccinated in a day.
“Together with external stakeholders, emergency services and local authorities, we got this off the ground and it was a massive success.
“I think that the two buzzwords of the year are ‘flexibility’ and ‘adaptability’,” continues Mark. “And we’ve now done 350,000 tests at Twickenham and using seven mobile testing sites. To be able to move from running a catering operation to a testing centre shows the adaptability of staff.”
Reacting to change
Jim Buttar, Head Groundsman at Twickenham is a man tasked with not letting the grass grow, at least not too long.
Closing the stadium doors might be an option, but you can’t do the same to a pitch, especially as it was the grass’s ‘growth time’. “Normally we’d try and ‘wake it up’ and get it going,” he explains. “But we couldn’t do that, we had to slow it [the growth] and go against our normal instincts.”
Jim had only just witnessed a successful Guinness Six Nations when the pandemic hit. “Literally within two weeks the world came crashing down, so we had to react,” he says.
With one of his team shielding, Jim alternated 12-hour working days with his other colleague, planning for the unknown. “I plan to the nth degree,” he says. “But we might have something set for a Monday, and the weather might change, so we have to shift and adapt. With nature, it’s not as simple as just turning things on and off – whatever the grass wants to do, we have to work with it.”
They adopted a ‘tread water’ approach that meant the pitch was always almost game-ready. “It was healthy, it was happy, it wasn’t quite ready to have rugby on it,” he says. “But the aim was that, with 14 days’ notice, it would be.”
The extra time was also used for research. “We worked with some of our suppliers and turned it into a case study to see what the pitch was capable of in terms of nutrition [testing the impact of different supplements], and there were some interesting findings that we adopted and use now.
“It was unique,” he admits, “because we’re probably never likely to have that opportunity again and we made the most of it.”
But, of course, rugby did return. “It was still a shock that it was actually happening,” he admits, “and even then, after long meetings, we tore up the old plan and started a new one.”
Flexing again, like every business. “It was just coming together, adapting, knowing that something hasn’t quite worked out how we thought it would, and having to flex.
“There were a few days where I came in and thought, ‘we’re not going to make it’, but it all came together.”
And not only did it come together, but there were learnings too. “As business returns post-pandemic,” begins Mark, “the flexibility and the ability to be able to work remotely and in the office – that blended approach – is going to be absolutely critical for us.”
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