Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

Nothing artificial about threat to Ulster’s hopes

Saracens' players try out the surface on the new pitch on which Ulster may have to play

So, is the future really plastic? And is the spectacle of two mud-spattered teams battling it out on a pudding of a pitch, in many ways part of the essence of rugby, to simply become a thing of memory?



And will it really be safer? Will the impacts on players lead to more injuries? And what will it mean for scrummaging where the need to dig studs deep into the turf are very much part of the requirement?

There are numerous questions but not quite so many definitive answers as Saracens are about to become the first professional rugby side to play on artificial turf at Allianz Park, their new ground at Barnet Copthall in north London.

Mind you, it’s a bit misleading to wonder if it is the future when plastic is actually already here — and not just for training purposes.

The idea is certainly not foreign to these shores with sides already playing on artificial surfaces such as Dublin club Lansdowne whose home games in Division 1A of the All-Ireland League are held on the synthetic surface at the Aviva Stadium’s back pitch and, not too far away, UCD are doing the same at Belfield.

Indeed, some Ulster players already know what it is like as a Ravens side played on UCD’s 4G pitch back in January 2010 against Ireland U20s when the original venue for the game was unplayable due to, you’ve guessed it, the weather.

And, of course, the senior Ulster squad regularly train on the indoor artificial surface available at the University of Ulster in Jordanstown.

So it’s already happening and being played on, albeit at a lower level, and no-one appears to have tried to tear the stuff up in the aftermath of these games.

But when it comes to high profile trumpeting of the technology, Saracens have stolen a march on all the others.

If they get their way then the synthetic fibre pitch will no longer be viewed as experimental but will revolutionise rugby at the top level.

What would normally have been a fairly anonymous LV=Cup tie between Saracens and Cardiff on Sunday will now get far more attention than it could ever have hoped for as the London club show the rugby world just how their artificial pitch will shape-up in a game situation.

They’ve certainly talked the talk, but Sunday will either add credence to the club’s claims that this is the way forward — indeed Monday’s showing to the media saw the snow cleared to show a pitch ready to play on with no concerns over sodden turf — or simply fuel the doubters who feel that it is just not good, or right, for rugby.

Ulster are also likely to give events at Allianz Park more than a passing glance should it turn out that they have to play their Heineken Cup quarter-final on the new surface in early April. With a surface that doesn’t freeze, won’t yield mud and will fail to break down then the innovative London club certainly appear to have made a fairly shrewd move.

Further backing for their cause — which has already been approved by the RFU and IRB — can be seen in the state of some international grounds where turf has had to be regularly replaced.

Indeed, Wales are already out of the blocks over the Millennium Stadium and the WRU are believed to be looking into the possibility of having an artificial surface in time for the 2015 World Cup.

As for the surface at Allianz Park, it is made up of three layers which is believed to require only a weekly brushing and is robust enough to last several years.

There is a shock pad which complies with the IRB’s approval, a 65mm ‘carpet, of fibre and a rubber and sand mix which gives the feeling of natural grass. The club also maintains that this is tough enough for heavy contact but forgiving enough to ensure the safety of players.

But the doubts remain.

The fear is that the intensity of the hits in the professional game may do more damage to players hitting a synthetic deck and just because American Football can thrive on it means little for a game with scrums, lines-out and non-helmeted pile-ups.

And any side heading to Allianz Park will also surely be at a disadvantage when it comes to familiarity with what the surface will do to the bounce of the ball.

For all the training that you might do on an artificial surface there will be nothing like gaining knowledge from playing on the stuff week in and week out.

Maybe, but Saracens are boldly going where top flight rugby has not been before and, already, it appears that the Luddites could soon be vanquished.

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In yesterday’s edition it was stated that the Heineken Cup quarter-finals would be played on the weekend of April 26-28. These are the dates of the semi-finals and the quarters will actually be played from April 5-7. We apologise for the error.