Scotland aim to be plastic fantastic against Tonga

Scotland's bearded wonder Geoff Cross has been named in the team to play against Tonga. Picture: John Devlin
Scotland's bearded wonder Geoff Cross has been named in the team to play against Tonga. Picture: John Devlin
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SCOTLAND will take a step into the unknown today when they train on the synthetic surface at Rugby Park for the first time. The brief session at the Kilmarnock ground is the only chance they will have to become acquainted with the artificial pitch before tomorrow’s game against Tonga, the first time a major rugby union Test will take place on plastic.

After announcing four changes to his starting line-up from the team which lost narrowly to New Zealand last week, head coach Vern Cotter said the half-hour on the pitch today is a vital part of the squad’s preparation. The new surface at BT Murrayfield, part-grass, part-synthetic, will give Scotland some idea of what to expect, but Cotter may yet fine-tune his gameplan once he and the players learn how this pitch responds.

“We get to run on the paddock tomorrow for the first time and we’ll spend 30 minutes on it, having a look at how the ball bounces, how it rolls, look at the dead ball and see what kind of purchase you get on it,” he said yesterday.

“I think synthetic surfaces are great, and what we have at Murrayfield is perfect – the hybrid, which is a combination of two great ideas and technology. While we’ve gone to synthetic in some instances, I think ultimately everyone will come back to hybrid.”

Tonga have played an international on a synthetic surface before – unlike Scotland, they are not considered a “Tier One” nation by the International Rugby Board – and some of the home team have experience of such pitches at grounds such as Cardiff and Saracens. But Cotter explained that, with a substantial variation between such surfaces, it was important that his squad get a feel for this one before the match.

“I’ve never coached a game on one before,” he said. “Some people like the pitch at Saracens, some don’t, some like Cardiff, and that’s why tomorrow is important to us, to get a feeling about it. What it’s like underfoot, kickers and halfbacks.”

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Winger Tim Visser, back in the side in place of the injured Sean Maitland, believes the main difficulty on synthetic surfaces is adjusting the running style used when attempting to sidestep an opponent. “I think it’s not necessarily better or worse,” he said. “The problem is that it’s different.

“Personally, it means that you can’t sidestep the same. Starting and stopping is different. The bounce of the ball is going to be different. So it’s important that I get a good run out on it tomorrow, see how it reacts, get some feedback from the pitch.

“That’s important because, even between artificial pitches, there can be quite a big difference. It will certainly make the game quick, which is good. From an entertainment perspective, I’m sure it will make the game better. And, for an outside back, it probably has its advantages.

“I don’t think it’s better for stepping. You have to sidestep completely differently. Rather than being able to sidestep with an extended leg and get good feedback from it, you tend to almost just stick your leg out and suddenly you’re standing still. You don’t get that same bounce back from it.

“I’ve played at Cardiff and that’s actually quite a good pitch, because, even though it’s artificial, it’s quite realistic in terms of feel. It doesn’t feel too firm or too soft.

“The one we’ve got behind Murrayfield is quite soft. Cardiff seems just about right, so I’m hoping Kilmarnock is similar to that.”

Prop Geoff Cross believes the surface will not hinder either pack in the set piece.

“You can still scrummage on it,” he said. “That’s something I’ll be looking forward to doing.

“Stud choice is probably the main issue, because an artificial pitch isn’t guaranteed to be as deep as a mud pitch. So going on with 21mm studs can potentially hurt your feet – that’s something the guys will be looking at. I’d say that’s the main difference.”

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