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Clubs are wary of pitching into artificial debate

SYNTHETIC pitches may be the future of professional rugby, but some remain to be convinced until the longer-term effects are known.

SYNTHETIC pitches may be the future of professional rugby, but some remain to be convinced until the longer-term effects are known.

Gosforth RFC led the way four years ago with the installation of a third-generation (3G) surface at their Druid Park home and, despite encountering some initial scepticism, rugby’s amateur fraternity appear to have gradually warmed to the undoubted benefits.

Sub-zero temperatures throughout the region saw Druid Park as the only venue able to host league rugby earlier this month, with the Callerton ground also coming to the rescue by staging the county President’s Development XV match when Billingham RFC’s grass pitch was frozen solid.

Durham University’s Maiden Castle did likewise for their BUCS Cup clash against Northumbria, but the introduction of the surface at elite level has provided controversy.

Aviva Premiership champions Saracens have gone public on their intention to have a synthetic pitch at their new Copthall Barnet home, while Widnes Vikings opened the new Super League season on the same surface at their Stobart Stadium 11 days ago.

Wakefield’s Richie Mathers was scathing in his criticism after suffering scrapes to his knees and elbows.

Although with temperatures of minus seven on the night the full-back was promptly told to “man-up” by Widnes coach Dennis Betts after a game which would almost certainly have been otherwise postponed. Newcastle Falcons, who boast Druid Park’s 3G surface and Newcastle United’s indoor hall among their numerous training facilities, had even considered replacing the Kingston Park turf with a synthetic equivalent under previous chairman Dave Thompson.

For the time being that is an idea not being actively pursued by the club, much to the relief of their Samoan centre Jamie Helleur.

He said: “I spent a season in Portugal playing on synthetic pitches and I have to say I am not a huge fan.

“I would not want to play on them consistently, or ever play on them if I am totally honest, but I can accept they do have their purpose in training.”

With Druid Park allowing the Falcons to run through their plays when they would otherwise be confined to barracks, the 28-year-old added: “In weeks like this if a pitch is not fit to practice on then it is great to be able to get out and use the plastic field, and every club should have one for that.

“They are great for allsorts of things, and at this time of the year in the UK you would be lost without one.”

Helleur joked: “Someone said to me last week our grass field out the back at Kingston Park was frozen over and me being so naïve with coming from New Zealand I did not know what that meant.

“I ran out onto the field in my boots and it was basically like concrete, which I found amazing.

“I did not know grass and mud could freeze, so it is important you can get out on to the 3G and train.

“You cannot just sit inside all week and say we will not train at all, and if you lose on the weekend nobody wants to hear an excuse along the lines of we could not train because it was cold.

“However, in terms of playing matches on them every week, I have experienced that in Portugal and it is not something I would want to welcome again.”

Falcons director of rugby Gary Gold insists he does not fall on either side of the debate just yet, saying: “I am sure there is going to be a lot of medical evidence looked at.

“It is perhaps hard on the body at times, but if you grew up playing rugby on the hard grounds of the Free State in South Africa then the 3G is quite soft compared to what we are used to!

“We are very lucky in that we have been able to use the indoor facility at Newcastle United and we have our own synthetic pitch at Druid Park.

“They are not great surfaces for the guys to be running on as much as they have been, and we have to be careful from an injury point of view.

“The plus side is we have not had to cancel a single training session, though, and the guys are coping well.”

Forwards coach John Wells echoed Gold’s sentiment, adding: “I have not got a lot a huge problem with it at the moment, purely because nobody really knows the long-term impact.

“My only concern in the short-term is unless you train on it regularly you have a massive knock-on effect with the players because they are used to training on grass and playing on grass. All of a sudden you are then spending a lot of time on another type of surface.”

“A lot of these guys are athletes and if they are 18 or 19 stone running around on a different surface with different footwear does have a short-term knock-on effect on knees, ankles and hips.”

Not entirely closing his mind to the benefits should 3G fields become the norm, he said: “Longer-term if this does become a lot more commonplace, I think you will find clubs spending more of their working week encouraging players to train on the synthetic fields so that their bodies adapt to it.

“Teams who play on artificial surfaces invariably train on them for the bulk of their working week and it is only natural they will get better at it.

“I suspect the Gosforth RFC players who train and play on it have adapted pretty well in terms of everything that comes with that.

“For teams who only work on it once or twice a week, if that load was to be increased significantly I suspect initially they will have more problems.

“If they work on it from now until the end of next season, from an injury point of view they will find it easier.”



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