Rugby faces tough choices over artificial pitches

You may not have noticed but rugby is undergoing a quiet, bloodless revolution through the introduction of plastic pitches, with Glasgow just the latest club to have opted for an artificial grass pitch (or AGP).

Former Scotland captain Kelly Brown enjoys playing on Saracens artificial pitch: I feel fine and have no issue with playing on plastic. Picture: Getty Images
Former Scotland captain Kelly Brown enjoys playing on Saracens artificial pitch: I feel fine and have no issue with playing on plastic. Picture: Getty Images

The Warriors’ new pitch comes after a season when Scotstoun was unplayable for three league matches, including that “home” 1872 Cup tie against Edinburgh which was switched to Murrayfield. Glasgow lost and it arguably cost them top spot in the Pro12 and that all-important home semi-final. The spread of AGPs is picking up momentum, especially south of the Border.

As in so much else, Saracens paved the way when their community-friendly AGP at the Allianz Stadium opened for business in an LV Cup match against the Cardiff Blues in January 2013 and they were quickly followed by Newcastle Falcons. Another set of Warriors, these ones operating in Worcester, are ripping up the grass in preparation for next season’s plastic replacement which has an organic infill rather than using the usual rubber crumb. According to the club this organic element includes coconut fibres which lend the pitch natural smells and players even get “dirty”.

Meanwhile, recently promoted Bristol play at Ashton Gate which boasts perhaps the best of both worlds with a “Desso” surface, currently used at Murrayfield and Twickenham, in which natural grass roots are woven in and around artificial anchors.

Next season a third of the 12 Aviva Premiership clubs will be playing their home matches on plastic or semi-artificial pitches, with Bath and Gloucester said to pondering a similar move. Two top division amateur clubs in Ireland play on plastic pitches (several others train on them) and more will likely follow if the experiment is deemed a success. This plastic revolution will change the game we watch, especially in the elimination of numerous variables which used to dictate play.

The game will become more homogeneous, less varied with less difference between the styles of play adopted by various teams. Given the underfoot experience we can expect far fewer teams to stick it up the jumper and more of them to imitate Super Rugby in style. You don’t need to be a dinosaur to bemoan this loss of variety.

Plastic rugby is also faster in every aspect from speed across the ground, changing direction, stopping, starting, collisions and even the breakdown. Everything about the game is noticeably quicker and while that might suit teams like Glasgow it won’t suit every team or every player.

Not everyone is happy at the prospect of plastic, although there are few dissenting voices in the one-party state that is Scottish professional rugby so you have to look south for naysayers. Exeter coach Rob Baxter doesn’t like them although that may have something to do with the fact that Jack Nowell has a long history of knee injuries such that Baxter chooses not to play the England winger on plastic pitches.

Just last month, Leicester’s pugnacious little general Richard Cokerill spoke up against AGPs and the boss was seconded by Tiger’s skipper Ed Slater. The former England lock also suffers knee problems and cites the case of Leicester stand-off Owen Williams and Saracens’ hooker Schalk Brits, both of whom suffered cruciate knee injuries on AGPs.

“I don’t like the [plastic] pitches,” Slater said in an interview with the Rugby Paper in February. “They’re not good for my knee and I know a lot of others feel the same way after games on them. I don’t know many people who like them.”

He obviously didn’t speak to former Scotland skipper Kelly Brown who has played on the Allianz plastic pitch for the past three seasons and won’t say a bad word about it.

“I can only speak for myself,” said Brown who helped Saracens to domestic and European glory, “but I feel fine and have no issue with playing on plastic. I know that some players have problems when they switch from grass to artificial and back again but I don’t have any issues and I am one of the older players!

“Some of the fast guys in the squad do get friction burns from the plastic pitch when they go to ground but they are no worse than you would get from a grass pitch in a dry summer.

“In a perfect world you would play on a really, really good grass surface but that simply isn’t always an option, especially given the UK weather.

Brown concedes that Sarries only train one day a week on the plastic pitch, the captain’s run the day before the weekend’s match, so the occasional use may mitigate the worst effects of the AGP were it not for a second Scot’s wholehearted backing of artificial grass. Another former Scotland breakaway in the shape of Ally Hogg uses the Newcastle Falcons’ plastic pitch every day of his working week.

“I don’t have a bad thing to say about it,” said Hogg. “I think the pitch is brilliant. Older players like myself get to run on a nice soft surface with some give in it and here at the Falcons we train on it every day.”

So much for the anecdotal evidence, but what does the scientific research have to say?

There is a shortage of longitudinal studies simply because rugby is a relatively recent convert to AGPs, at least in the UK. Nevertheless a 2010 report published by sports scientists Fuller, Clarke and Molloy utilised two seasons of data from six teams in Hong Kong’s premier division and two seasons of training injuries from two English Premiership clubs that trained on plastic and concluded: “There were no significant differences in the overall incidence of match injuries sustained on the two surfaces.”

The study did note four times as many anterior cruciate ligament injuries on plastic as occurred on grass but stated that while this was not statistically relevant it was “worthy of further study”, so perhaps Slater has a point.

Another study published in Medicine and Science in Sports in January 2015 arrived at the same broad conclusion re serious, time-loss injuries but it also gathered evidence about less serious injuries with the following conclusions: “Abrasions were substantially more common on artificial turf” and “muscle soreness was consistently higher in the four days following a match” played on plastic compared to one played on grass.

That is backed up by another Saracens star in Duncan Taylor who was positive about the Allianz artificial surface but conceded that the players did still suffer as a result.

“One thing it does do, it leaves you with grazes and burns which hang around for a couple of weeks,” said the Scotland centre. “The more teams that are getting them [plastic pitches] the more these grazes will stick around because you will get them home and away. You just play through them, you put as much Vaseline on your legs as you can and try and slide across the surface.”

The benefits of AGPs are too obvious to ignore but the drawbacks may only become evident over time.