Artificial playing surface: The new rugby trend?

Joel Tomkins touches down for Saracens on the artificial pitch at Allianz Park. Picture: Getty
Joel Tomkins touches down for Saracens on the artificial pitch at Allianz Park. Picture: Getty
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HERE is a date for anyone who might be hosting a pub quiz in the next few weeks. With all eyes focused firmly on the upcoming Six Nations, history was made when the first professional game of rugby took place on a wholly artificial pitch on 25 January, 2013.

Burns Night with a difference because this new plastic pitch is said to have done away with the usual friction burns caused by many others.

Saracens hosted the Cardiff Blues in the LV= Cup, running out 19-11 winners but only after the visitors’ No.8 Robin Copeland made a little bit of history by scoring the first professional try on a plastic pitch.

The IRB insisted on 22 criteria and Saracens, a little more forward thinking than most and wealthier with it, laid a plastic pitch that fulfilled them all at their new Allianz Park in Barnet. The cost of the pitch was approximately £700,000 and the top carpet of fibres will need to be re-laid every eight years or so depending upon usage. In the meantime the running costs are low (around £10,000 per annum) and undersoil heating unnecessary since you can reportedly play on the plastic right down to -20 Celsius, not that anyone would want to.

Saracens are obliged to let the opposition train on their pitch ahead of a game, an offer that Worcester and London Welsh have taken up, and they are obliged to allow pretty much every school and organisation in the vicinity short of the local bridge club to use the facility when the Aviva high flyers are not doing so themselves. That was why, the club’s media manager Mark Hardwick explained, they opted for a fully artificial pitch rather than the half-way house that Twickenham have adopted.

“As part of the agreement enabling us to get building warrants for the stadium we have to open it up to lots of local clubs. A school coach has just this minute drawn up outside and they will train on the main pitch,” says Hardwick.

“The pitch is designed specifically for rugby with the specially made artificial threads six and a half centimetres long. Below that is a rubberised mat, the sort of stuff you find in a children’s playground, two and a half centimetres of shockpad that ensures there is some give in the surface when the players fall over.”

The surface is also liberally layered with sand and rubber “crumb”, small granules that get everywhere.

So far the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and that’s not just from the local laundry that no longer has to scrub the grass and mud stains out of the club kit.

“The pitch was different but good,” reported the Blues’ fly-half Ceri Sweeney after that historic first match. “I played with full studs in my boots and they made the same impression on the pitch as if the grass was real. The ball stayed dry, which helped handling, and although there was not as much give when you planted your foot into the ground, it was in no way dangerous and there is nothing negative I can say about it.”

“It’s like a summer pitch, where the grass has been allowed to grow a bit and it really does feel good,” was former England winger David Strettle’s take on the new surface and he went on to claim that, as far as sprinting was concerned: “The best way to describe it is that you don’t notice the difference with grass.”

Meanwhile prop Matt Stevens, a spokesman for the front row, was also won over.

“It’s like a hard grass pitch but with spring and give,” said the one time England stalwart. “In the Northern Hemisphere, with the rugby played during the winter months, this is a natural progression for the game and it’s the answer to a lot of wet pitches.”

The next question is are the Scottish Rugby Union going to invest in artificial pitches to which the only obvious reply is, have you poked your nose outdoors recently?

An SRU spokesman confirmed that a working party had been established within Murrayfield to weigh up the costs and benefits before reporting back to the board.

“Scottish Rugby is always keen to explore innovation and new technology and we have an internal team looking into the subject of artificial pitches,” said the spokesman. “Their work is under way and they will seek to evaluate the success of other grounds/developments and the costs of such projects. The work is still at an early stage so there’s no timescale for a definitive report at this juncture.”

Scottish sport has always been hampered by appalling weather which makes plastic pitches a no-brainer if money can be found. Part of the problem is that Scotland’s handling skills are below that of our main rivals so Greig Laidlaw often gets strict instructions to hoof the ball up-field at every opportunity rather than risk playing too much rugby. Artificial pitches and indoor facilities, none of which come cheap, are an obvious way to help Scotland bridge the skills gap especially when we are faced with the coldest March for 50 years. It may not be a matter of whether the SRU can afford to build the pitches, from a playing perspective it can’t afford not to.

Without wanting to pre-empt the finding of the internal investigation, there appear to be two plans in the pipeline. The first concerns Scotstoun where the pitch has suffered badly this season and required a partial re-turf mid-season after flooding. Although it is a council-owned property, which complicates matters, in an ideal world the SRU are thought to favour a fully plastic pitch at the Warriors’ home ground, similar to that at Allianz Park. Wear and tear is not a problem so it would have obvious benefits for the whole of Glasgow rugby rather than just the pro-team.

In addition there are nascent plans to replicate Twickenham’s semi-artificial surface at Murrayfield. The West London ground boasts what is known as a “Desso” pitch after the company that installs it. This is a mixture of natural grass underpinned by artificial plastic implants which, its makers claim, offers the best of both worlds.

Approximately 20 million plastic roots are injected 20 centimeters into the pitch and these extend just 2∫ centimeters above the surface. Natural grass is sown around the artificial implants and wraps its roots around them which helps bind the surface together. There are perhaps 30 blades of naturally grown grass for every injection of plastic and the manufacturers claim that this hybrid pitch can endure three times more wear and tear than natural grass on its own. Since the surface at Stade de France and the Millennium Stadium both cut up badly if they so much as sniff a stud, anything that is three-times tougher has to be welcomed.

As well as Twickenham, the same hybrid system has been used to good effect at Croke Park in Dublin, Anfield, the Emirates Stadium, the Green Bay Packers’ Lambeau Field, Wembley and the San Siro.

So far Saracens’ is the only fully plastic rugby pitch and, thanks to that rubber cushion and a new design of softer “grass”, it is said to be more player-friendly than the artificial pitch at the back of Murrayfield.

If plastic gains widespread acceptance, as looks likely, then rugby will be set for more upheaval after the trauma of turning professional. The one thing that everyone agrees on is the speed of the game on plastic is akin to pressing the fast forward button on Sky+. The pace of the game will increase dramatically although that may not be a bad thing.

If rugby resorts to being a test of endurance rather than power then the arms race for bigger, more physical athletes should be reined in. One player reckoned that he had to shed 10kg to compete in Super Rugby after a stint in the Northern Hemisphere. In effect, every game on plastic will look a little like Super 15.

If the next generation of Scottish players can replicate the skills shown by our rugby relations from south of the equator the investment in artificial pitches will look cheap at any price.