What was supposed to be a two-week tour of Europe for Earl Marriott Secondary’s senior boys rugby team has turned into a story that could well be pitched as a sequel to Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
But unlike the 1987 John Candy-Steve Martin comedy, this version is a lot less funny and a lot more stressful as the South Surrey travelling party of 42 tries to find its way home amid a worldwide COVID-19 crisis.
The team, led by head coach Adam Roberts, left Vancouver for London on Wednesday morning – with a layover in Dallas – but things escalated quickly between departure and arrival. Almost immediately upon landing, the team’s original itinerary – which included games in France, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg and Germany – was scrapped.
In addition to rugby games, the team had a number of other activities planned, including a visit to Vimy Ridge. Originally, the team planned to return home on March 26, flying out of Frankfurt, Germany.
“When we left, everything was fine – well, it was bad, but it wasn’t nearly what it has become now,” Roberts said Friday afternoon from London.
“By the time we landed in Dallas, (U.S. president Donald) Trump had announced he was going to ban all trips from Europe, and then the World Health Organization said this was a pandemic. That all happened by the time we got to Dallas.
“Then we landed in London, and it just hit like a ton of bricks. Everything was chaos, everything was playing out just crazy. Parents were calling, wondering what was going on, and everyone was just in total limbo.”
Upon arrival in London, Roberts was immediately told the team would not be allowed to travel to mainland Europe, which meant, if the team was to continue on its trip, a new itinerary would have to be created – and quickly.
After years in rugby, Roberts – who has also coached at the provincial and national levels – had contacts throughout the United Kingdom, and started to create a new game schedule for his group.
But with the situation surrounding the COVID-19 crisis getting worse by the hour – with professional and amateur sports leagues across the world cancelling and postponing games – eventually Roberts decided to pull the plug.
“It just kept escalating, and there was more panic, more chaos, more hysteria, so we just thought, ‘OK, let’s just get out of here.’”
For much of Thursday and Friday, Roberts and others tried to find a route home – a challenge that was exacerbated by an airline overrun with cancellation and change requests and the newly instituted rule that flights from Europe could not land in the U.S., with the exception of ones from the U.K.
“No one has the capacity to deal with what’s going on, and everyone is converging on London as they try to fly home because they can’t re-enter the U.S. from anywhere else,” Roberts said.
“I’ve been working my tail off trying to find a way home. I can’t even imagine what my phone bill is going to be.”
On Friday, the Surrey School District announced that all international student trips have been cancelled for the rest of the school year.
By early afternoon Friday, Roberts’ team had a plan to get home, but it wasn’t exactly a direct flight. The team was set to travel by ferry from London to Dublin, Ireland, where the group would then split into two, “because we have a group of 42 and nobody has that many available seats,” Roberts explained.
One group will board a plane that will land in Seattle via Chicago, while the second will stop in Philadelphia before also landing at Sea-Tac International Airport. The two flights land within 25 minutes of each other. From there, the team will re-convene and board a bus that will take them to the Canada-U.S. border, which Roberts said they’ll walk across, and have people pick them up on the Canadian side.
“Talk about planning on the fly,” Roberts said.
Though it’s been a stressful few days for the EMS crew, Roberts was quick to praise the hospitality of the U.K. rugby community, especially offers of help from members of Vyners School, which is a short drive from London.
“I played against Vyners when I was in Grade 10 at Semiahmoo, so there’s a longstanding tradition and relationship there,” he said. “The Vyners guys were great. They told us, ‘You can stay in our school gym. You can stay here for two weeks if you need to.’
“So really, there was no better place for us to be during this than with people we know and trust and love. The rugby community is just amazing – everyone just wanting to help.”
In between all the botched travel plans and confusion, the Mariners did manage to hit the pitch for one game, played Friday against Vyners.
“And we won,” Roberts said.
“But it was a long way to go just for one game.”