A new domestic season is almost upon us and among the fresh faces set to make their Premiership Rugby bow is a key arrival who may just turn out to be one of the most significant signings of the off-season.
Newcastle Falcons’ decision to install a hi-tech artificial pitch at Kingston Park makes them the second club in England’s top flight to ditch a traditional grass playing surface after Saracens’ ground-breaking and headline-grabbing switch in 2013 – with both understood to have cost in the region of £500,000.
But the Falcons were not the first elite club in the UK to follow Saracens’ lead with PRO12 side Cardiff Blues even quicker to rip up their troublesome turf for a state-of-the-art artificial pitch now in place at their BT Sport Arms Park home.
The use of artificial pitches is of course nothing new, with the International Rugby Board (IRB) having approved their use via Regulation 22 back in 2003 – part of their efforts to boost global participation in the sport while also ensuring that the pitches offered the same performance qualities as natural grass. More recently, the IRB moved to redefine the use of artificial turf with the ‘highest possible player welfare standards’ also at the forefront of their thinking.
The grassroots game has long since embraced the technology, with Maidenhead RFC blazing a trail that has since been followed by other forward-thinking clubs, and the approval of such pitches have also led to their installation in countries where the elements or lack of finances have prohibited the laying and maintenance of high-quality grass pitches.
All eyes were on Saracens when they quite literally rolled out their new playing surface and initial feedback from players, coaches, commentators, supporters and the community – who would now benefit from year-round access to a top-quality recreational facility – were overwhelmingly positive.
The timing of its unveiling couldn’t have been much better with a number of high-profile games, including two Six Nations matches, marred by a terrible playing surface that ruined those games as contests and spectacles. Saracens’ pitch offered much-needed stability at scrum time and the ‘consistent’ platform it provided resulted in a faster, flowing game.
That end product was very much part of Saracens’ thinking and director of rugby Mark McCall and his coaching team welcomed a surface that encouraged a running game that has helped to sell out their Barnet-based stadium time and time again in the 18 months since. Clearly proud of their investment, Saracens also opened the door to all their Premiership rivals in terms of the technology and the pitch itself with teams given an open invite to train on it.
The impact on the style of rugby it enabled was not lost on Cardiff Blues’ then boss Phil Davies who, well aware that the sport was now an entertainment industry, set his sights on an attractive brand of rugby.
Newcastle boss Dean Richard is also confident it will aid his efforts to get a Falcons side that notched a league-low 23 tries last season, firing on all cylinders. "The new surface will undoubtedly produce a more free-flowing entertaining style,” he said ahead of the new campaign.
The increase in crowd-pleasing rugby along with the boost to the grassroots game in terms of access to top-class facilities will only be applauded by a governing body determined to move from ‘regulation to inspiration’ – but could we ever see an artificial pitch host a Tier 1 international?
Interest in Saracens’ venture extended to international rugby with both the Welsh Rugby Union and the Scottish Rugby Union among the interested observers but they eventually invested in the ‘Desso’ option – a blend of artificial and real grass that is also in place at Twickenham – to ease their concerns over sub-standard playing surfaces.
Artificial pitches have already been used for international rugby in the lower tiers of the game but we are clearly some way from an artificial Rugby World Cup and a fierce debate like that which has been sparked by Fifa’s decision to play the Women’s football World Cup in Canada in 2015 on such surfaces.
The players who are leading the revolt against that decision are reportedly wary of a possible increase in risk of injury when playing on artificial pitches and similar concerns greeted Saracens’ move to ‘plastic’ with the memory of the carpet-like surfaces used at football clubs such as QPR and Luton back in the 1980s still fresh in the mind of many.
Saracens’ decision was also bold given the lack of medical evidence to both support its use and defend it against those who point to what they see as its unforgiving nature. The club promised a ‘faster, safer and more entertaining game’ and stressed that the pitch – that incorporates a rubber shock pad and grass-like carpet along with sand and rubber crumb – had met strict guidelines including Head Impact Criteria (HIC) but they, along with the rest of the sport, must await the evidence.
The timing of the introduction of the pitch came too late for the latest Rugby Football Union injury audit with only a pilot study supported the RFU, Premiership Rugby and the Rugby Players’ Association (RPA) conducted in 2012-13 to ‘compare the incidence and nature of time-loss, non-time-loss and abrasion injuries during matches played on artificial turf and natural grass’. This study was extended to a full study last season with results expected next year but concerns are clearly not high given the Falcons’ willingness to embrace change and they are unlikely to be the last to do so.
Given the lower maintenance costs and the apparent increase in revenue available from bigger crowds, attracted by a more entertaining game, and a facility that can be rented out at any time without fear of damage, could more Premiership clubs follow the lead of Saracens and Newcastle? The prospect of an entirely artificial Premiership playing field does not appear that remote – despite what traditionalists may argue – especially given the economic pressure that even the most successful clubs are constantly under.
Do you think we should see 6 Nations, Rugby Championship or even Rugby Word Cup matches on artificial turf? Have you played a rugby match on artificial turf? If so, how did you find it? Would you want your club to install artificial turf?