Thin end of the wedge or natural progression?

Peter Brittonin Editorial

By writing any 'comment' on artificial playing surfaces, there is always the risk of upsetting (polite version) my editor and managing director, both of whom are strong advocates of natural turf, and quite rightly so, as there is no better surface to play sport on - when it is maintained correctly. And there's the rub.

The Pitchcare message board is strewn with threads that bemoan the lack of investment into natural turf pitches. How often have you heard or read the following statements:

- we simply don't have the machinery to perform important tasks

- the local authority only cut our pitch once or twice a month

- we can't afford end of season renovations

- we have no drainage installed

- the members are quite happy to spend money on the clubhouse but, when I need new machinery, the answer is always 'we don't have the funds'

The list of negatives goes on. Indeed, many of our article contributors and featured turfcare professionals regularly highlight their concerns over lack of investment. Just read our 'Grasscutter' feature in each issue for starters.

So, the fact that Saracens Rugby Club have installed an artificial pitch at their new Allianz Park stadium will be of concern to many in the turfcare industry, whether it is the groundstaff charged with preparing natural turf surfaces, or machinery manufacturers and other suppliers whose products will no longer be required to maintain the surface.

Is this the thin end of the wedge or simply natural progression?

Record and pause television, hand-held mobile devices, laptops, online banking and shopping, et al, have affected the way we live.

The fact that planes no longer fall out of the sky with amazing regularity must surely be seen as worthwhile progress. Equally, that no one drives around anymore in a Morris Marina, Datsun Cherry or Austin Princess - bizarrely marketed as "like cheese you can drive around in", because of its wedge shape - is something to rejoice.

In the case of Saracens, the community aspect of their new stadium pitch appears to be the driving force behind installing an artificial surface, and it is difficult to argue against the financial benefits its increased usage should bring, if all goes to plan.

The case for the defence of natural turf will cite injuries to players that include carpet burns and damaged ligaments, whilst the rubber crumb infill has been the subject of reports concerning its implications to our health, especially that of children.

There may be a good deal of truth in both those scenarios, but it is equally fair to say that children's play areas with soft rubber surfaces have reduced the risk of serious injury, whilst professional rugby players, and indeed footballers, have been training on similar surfaces for years without too many injury or health concerns. It may even be argued that intensive training drills on a daily basis would highlight these issues more readily than eighty minutes of rugby or ninety minutes of football.

I watched Saracens first Premier League game on the surface - against Exeter Chiefs - live on ESPN Sports. I even recorded it so that I could play back the post match interviews, just in case there were any contentious or adverse comments that I might want to listen to again for the sake of accuracy. There weren't any!

In fact, the game, which Saracens won 31-11, was an enjoyable viewing experience. Dare I say, a better exhibition of rugby than the Six Nations matches in Dublin and Paris the previous weekend where the respective surfaces cut up terribly, scrums proved difficult and the rugby became attritional. Neither offered a good case for the defence if the truth be told.

At no stage, did the players or managers of the Chiefs offer up the surface as an excuse for their thumping, whilst the ex-professionals commentating on the match for ESPN declared the surface "a huge success" and "the way forward". I continue to watch, and the positives keep coming from all quarters.

The technology of artificial surfaces has advanced so much since the 'bad old days' of QPR and Luton, yet these new surfaces still seem to be tarnished by the experiences of forty years ago - when Datsun Cherries ruled the roads!

On the flip side, it has to be said that today's natural turf surfaces, at the highest level, bear no resemblance to those of the eighties either, and our industry can be proud of the advancements made. Yet, at lower league levels, the surfaces at our winter sports venues are a concern.

How 'natural' is a surface devoid of grass, that is covered with sand and rolled to maintain a flat surface, where players perform more like Torvill and Dean than footballers? A goal scorer performing one of those 'sliding on the knees' celebrations on this type of surface would be down to the bone after a few yards!

There is no money in football, especially in the lower leagues, and only three Premiership sides return a regular yearly profit. Yet the attraction of installing an artificial surface at a cost of £500,000, with a cited lifespan of ten years and annual maintenance costs of £18,000, appears to be an attraction. How does that work?

These cash strapped clubs will be watching how the Saracens surface performs over the coming weeks, months and seasons. If it performs as well as it is expected to, and local community use does increase the coffers, there will be a call for this technology to be installed at many other UK stadiums - both rugby and football. Already, the Welsh Rugby Union are seriously considering its installation at the Millennium Stadium, as are Cardiff Blues RFC at Cardiff Arms Park.

Artificial surfaces are already in use for football at a fairly high level, with Welsh Premier League outfit, New Saints, Maidstone United of the Isthmian League Division One South and a handful of Scottish League sides playing on them with, once again, the community use aspect being cited.

Yes, this is natural progression, but it is being advanced at an alarming rate by the refusal of club management to provide their groundstaff with the necessary budgets to expertly undertake the correct and proper maintenance of natural turf. Couple that with a ground swell of opinion within the governing bodies that artificial is the way forward and it is a worrying trend.

Sadly, it will be the financiers that make the final decision, whilst the turfcare professionals continue to be hampered by lack of equipment and budgets, all the time, and inadvertently, adding fuel to the debate. Yes, artificial does have a place in our industry, but surely not at the expense of natural turf?

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