Gosforth RFC - top level rugby on a 3G artificial surface

Rob Stewartin Rugby

Gosforth Rugby2"The kids love playing on the surface - on a Sunday morning, they will even switch their kick-off times so that all the teams can use it, because they prefer it to the grass"

Apart from the unseasonably mild weather, on the surface of things, there appears to nothing unusual about the scenes at Druids Park, home of Gosforth Rugby Football Club - on the cusp of rural Northumberland - as first, second and third-teamers, plus youth-team players, are put through their paces on a Tuesday night in the middle of November.

Superficially at least, what is being seen is the sort of scenario that will have been repeated across the length and breadth of Britain, as amateur rugby players work on their fitness and their set-piece routines, as they put work behind them and press for a place in one of the weekend matches.

GrahamCrozierUnder the glow of floodlights and light drizzle, the shiny playing surface looks immaculate as dozens of rugby players are put through a series of drills. But, it is only on closer inspection that it emerges that there is more to this place than meets the eye, because the centrepiece of Gosforth RFC's Druid Park is a state-of-the-art 3G artificial pitch.

It might not be the rugby purist's cup of tea and, indeed, opponents used to refuse to play on it, but Gosforth are proud of their director of rugby, Graham Crozier; and his colleagues are proud of their claim to fame. This reporter has headed out to see what all the fuss is about as the first team prepare for a Durham/Northumberland Division One meeting with table-topping Darlington.

"It is something we are very proud of, it makes the club look good, and I hope to God it helps us flourish," Graham told me as we stroll around the glistening pitch. "It is a wonderful surface and, when teams arrive, they are bowled over by how good the facilities are. What a place it is. It gives us a wow factor."

The pitch cost in the region of £400,000 to install four years ago, when the club was taken under the wing of Premiership outfit, Newcastle Falcons, but provoked an angry backlash from Gosforth's rivals who, initially, won the right not to play on the controversial surface.

"Once it was laid, we held a ten-a-side tournament, when we invited all the sides in the league to play on the pitch and have a bloody good day, I am proud to say that I scored the first try ever to be scored on the artificial pitch; I think I got the second one as well," Graham recalled.Gosforth Pitch2

"But there were a lot of objections from the teams in the league at the time. They didn't want to play on it, and were supported by a Rugby Football Union directive saying they didn't actually have to, and that they could play us on grass if they wanted to. A few teams refused to play on it, and we had to hire the grass pitch at nearby Bullocksteads to play those fixtures."

"The following season an RFU/IRB directive dictated that teams could not object to playing on it."

"There have been a few players who have complained about getting burns, but you get grass burns from natural surfaces in the early part of the season and also in the later stages of the season as well. Once you get used to playing here, it is a fabulous surface."

"If you want to play fast-paced, running rugby, which is how I like the sport to be played, then this is the pitch to have. It suits us really well."

It seems strange that Gosforth - which calls itself the home of grassroots rugby - should be pioneers of artificial surfaces, because a club formed in 1877 is, not Gosforth Pitchsurprisingly, steeped in history. However, it was in danger of disbanding.

"The club used to be based on the Great North Road but, when the club split into two to form Newcastle Falcons and Newcastle Gosforth, that ground was sold, and the old Journal ground at Kingston Park was purchased by Northern Rock, which is now the Falcons' home ground."

In 2008, the ground was purchased by Northumbria University, and the Falcons' retained full use of the facilities.

"Dave Thompson, the major shareholder of the the Falcons' had acquired Druids Park from the Blue Star football club (who now play their games at Kingston Park) as a training ground for the Falcons'. The idea for the artificial surface came about when he became chairman, and we got into bed with them as part of a community project. It has now become our permanent home and Gosforth RUFC has been able to start up again autonomously."

Links between Gosforth and the Falcons are not so strong nowadays, and Gosforth are left to their own devices when it comes to maintenance, as the groundstaff at their neighbours devote their time to Kingston Park, and the Premiership strugglers no longer train at Druids Park.Gosforth Pitch CloseUp

However, they are a plucky bunch at Gosforth. The fact their pitch is 'low maintenance' and recently underwent one of its biannual inspections ordered by the RFU, to make sure everything is shipshape, is a source of pride for Graham. "It has just been assessed by the people who laid the pitch, and it passed with flying colours," Graham reported as he gazed from one set of posts to the other.

"They used a rolling ball to show that it is totally flat, and theodolites to make sure that it was level. From this dead-ball line to the other dead-ball line there is 0.3 percent of an incline, which means it is nigh-on perfectly level."

"The surface is brushed on a regular basis and, once a month, gets a right good brush to loosen the rubber crumb. Most of the white lines are sewn into the surface, the only lines that aren't are the 15-metre lines that are painted on; but even they do not require regular painting like grass pitches that sometimes have to be marked out on a weekly basis."

"So, it is always ready and can be used as a football pitch or a rugby pitch with a quick turnover. The posts come out, the football posts, which are kept nearby, go in, and the stage is set for a football match. It used to be home of Newcastle Blue Star, and other football teams have played here on a Saturday morning but, apart from that, it is a dedicated rugby ground."

Gosforth PitchDruids Park often plays host to county youth games, and Graham is hoping to see the club's youth section prosper. "I joined the club thirteen years ago and, at that time, we had a full youth section from under six all the way up to under 18s, but currently we ony have under 13-18, so we have lost a bit, but that is something we are trying to develop," Graham said.

"Interestingly, the kids love playing on the surface as well. On a Sunday morning, they will even switch their kick-off times so that all the teams can use it, because they prefer it to the grass."

"You can play up to ten games a day if you wish - one after the other. Car parking can be a bit of an issue but, otherwise, there are no other issues. That is the beauty of this pitch. If you play game after game after game on a grass pitch it will start to get cut up, no matter what the weather conditions."

The Gosforth 1st XV are currently occupying a mid-table position, but some opponents insist they have an unfair home advantage, something Graham takes issue with. "Visiting teams say we have an advantage because we play here week in week out but, for me, the only advantage is that we can play on the pitch 365 days of the year, and we can play on it when every other pitch in the county is waterlogged."

Gosforth Rugby"The only thing that stops us playing on it is really heavy snow and, even then, it would take six inches of the stuff to stop us playing. It is much easier to clear and, once you start running on it the system drags away the moisture. The more you run on it, the better it gets."

"We played one game last season when the road outside was totally flooded, along with half the car park, but we still managed to play a game of rugby - it was the only game in the north that beat the elements."

Not even last winter's heavy snowfall, which brought much of the region to a halt, could stop the England student's side from taking on their Irish counterparts in a rugby league international.

"There is a saying in the north-east that it 'bleaches down with snow' and, on the night the English students rugby league team took on their Scottish counterparts, the snow was absolutely horrendous. We went around constantly cleaning the touchline, and jumping on the halfway line and the 22, when there was a break in play. As the players disturbed the snow, it melted away. It was not perfectly clear, but the lads loved it."

As for the 'burning' issue of safety, Graham is quick to play down suggestions that it is hazardous. "The only thing against it, that I can think of, is that you do get burns every now and again. Surely though, it is better to land on that than on a hard surface. There is always a bit of bounce and spring in the surface, and it is nowhere near as bad as landing on the mud in September or October time, or at the back-end of the season when the pitches have dried out. It is clean and tidy and nice and flat so, when you are running, there are no divots to jar your leg into."

As the club prepare for their fixture with Darlington, club secretary David Hall is relishing their visit. "For teams that like to stick the ball up their shirt and battle their way through, this is not the sort of place they want to play," David said. "But, for Darlington, it is the ideal sort of ground because they like to play good, attractive, running rugby. It should be a great game, and we'll have to be at the top of our game to get anything."

As it turned out, the green and whites of Gosforth went on to narrowly beat Darlington in a tense 27-24 win and, despite the outcome, there were no sour grapes from visiting skipper Steve Taylor. "It beats playing on a shitty, muddy surface," he said. "It is a lot more consistent. It might be an advantage to Gosforth in that it is relatively alien to everyone else. I am not saying that had anything to do with them beating us, but it has to give them an edge. I don't want it to sound like an excuse, but I think it is a reasonable claim."

"A few of our players said they slipped on it more than a normal surface but, in terms of playing the game compared to other pitches in the league that are consistently soaking wet and are like a bog, that also helps that home team because they are more used to it."

In terms of safety, Steve sees no obvious issues. "Last year one of our lads got some rubber in his eye and it blew up and he had to go to hospital, I sprained my ankle on it, but not significantly," he said.

"I personally noticed that there appears to be one of two more injuries on that surface than others, but it could be that we are, maybe, just a bit more conscious of it when someone does get injured, because it is on 'that' surface compared to others. Because you hear the rumours, you are possibly looking at it more. I have hurt my ankle on other occasions, but would never blame it on the surface when it is grass. Last year, a big percentage of us had carpet burns, which are absolutely horrendous but, this year, there didn't seem to be an issue with it. Maybe that's because we played terribly last year and kept going to ground."

"Overall, I believe it gives Gosforth a slight advantage, but it is a very good surface to play on. There are no excuses not to play good rugby on it. It is just a bit alien to everyone else - at the moment!"

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