After serving on the front-line of the fight against COVID-19, Principality Stadium will return as a sports venue on Sunday as Wales take on Ireland in their opening fixture of the 2021 Six Nations, with officials stating the past few months have presented a “different level” of operations challenge.

Unlike a normal rugby match day, instead of both teams running out to a packed crowd, Wales will return to an empty stadium with 74,500 uninhabited seats as the pandemic continues to mean no crowds at sporting events.

This year’s edition of the Six Nations will go ahead as planned after the French government officially gave the green light to its national team competing earlier this week. For Principality Stadium and the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU), the tournament represents a return to some kind of normality following a year of change.

In November, the Cardiff venue was returned to the WRU after more than six months as a field hospital. Approached in March by the Cardiff & Vale Health Board, work quickly started to adapt the stadium into a temporary surge hospital to support NHS Wales’ response to COVID-19.

Following just a five-day period of design and planning, construction work began at the end of March and within two weeks the stadium became the Dragon’s Heart Hospital, taking over the main bowl, concourses, and levels five and six of hospitality level five. The Dragon’s Heart was officially opened by Prince Charles on April 20 and received its first patient on April 28.

At the peak of its construction, over 600 workers were on site and it took over 250,000 man-hours to complete the site build and fit out the hospital, extending the Health Board’s capacity to accommodate up to 2,000 patients; making it the second-largest field hospital in the UK.

Stadium manager, Mark Williams, said: “We’ve done a lot of things at the stadium here in the past from rugby, football, all sorts of third-party events, concerts, speedway, motorsport – but this was a different level.

“We started the planning cycle of this with the NHS and Mott MacDonald, the army were involved and about 30 members of my stadium staff were involved in the project throughout. It was around the clock work, 24/7. It was a huge collaborative effort – but I have to say we were all very proud to have helped both the NHS and the people of Wales in the time of national emergency.

“We started decommissioning mid-December, the tents in the bowl came down, the concourses were cleared, and everything needed to be put back as we were before the hospital came in. A stadium ready to receive a rugby match.”

With the focus shifting from the decommissioning plan to the reinstatement of the stadium, within six weeks Principality Stadium was transformed back into an international sporting venue.

Working alongside grass growers in Yorkshire, new grass was cultivated for six months prior to installation on January 11 and took four days to lay, followed by weeks of maintenance to ensure the pitch exceeds standards for international sport.

The return of rugby comes after the WRU in October posted a loss of £5.3m (€6.05m/$7.25m) for the 2020 financial year, adding it was bracing itself for an even tougher next 12 months as COVID-19 continues to significantly impact revenue.

Speaking ahead of Sunday’s game, Steve Phillips, WRU Group CEO, said: “We had hoped our return to our home ground and the transformation from Dragon’s Heart hospital back to rugby citadel would herald the return of our beloved Welsh rugby fans, but we are thankful for what we have – the opportunity to play on.

“A lot of hard work has gone into ensuring we can do just that, and we are grateful to all who have contributed.”

Images: WRU