A landmark moment has been reached in rugby union, following the installation of the UK's first synthetic match pitch at a top flight stadium. In January, Aviva Premiership trendsetters Saracens unveiled their state of the art 3G synthetic pitch at their Allianz Park Stadium home.
The move to the north London venue, in partnership with Barnet Council, prompted the club to set out their stall and potentially change the nature of the sport forever in the UK, putting faith in a surface that has never witnessed a top-drawer competitive fixture since the bad old days of early synthetic pitches in football, which left a lasting stain on the image of the technology, until recently.
It was a bold decision by the club to switch from natural to synthetic, and one that the traditionally conservative governing bodies were not all accepting of. It's of little surprise to the rugby fraternity, though, that Saracens is the first club to dive into synthetic waters. They are universally known as the sport's innovators, but the sceptics will be fixing their gaze on the pitch over the course of the season to ensure the issues associated with synthetics in the past are consigned to history.
Questions concerning how scrums and line-outs will play, the likelihood of burns and how the carpet will hold out when faced with the rigours of the game are just a few being aired. Yet, if Saracens can show the rugby world that their new pitch has resolved such concerns once and for all, this first installation could well prove a game-changer. Feedback from players and coaches so far suggests that it has.
S pectators and TV cameras were in attendance for Saracens LV Cup tie with Cardiff Blues, which was used as a test event before the official opening of the 10,000-seat stadium on 16 February, when the north London outfit hosted Exeter Chiefs in the Allianz Park's debut Premiership fixture.
The man brought in to oversee long-term maintenance of the new pitch is Danny Holding, who moved from a life-long career in football, at nearby Tottenham Hotspur FC, to take up the reins as Maintenance Manager at Allianz Park Stadium in late November.
"I'm not from a turfcare background," he admits, "although I dealt a lot with the team at Spurs, so guidance on how to look after the pitch has been vital for me. I've spent my whole career working in stadiums, so I know how they tick, but synthetic pitches are new to me; it's been a steep learning curve."
Born in north London in 1981, Holding has already enjoyed a considerable career, spending some seventeen years at Spurs, working his way up the ranks from a fourteen year old doing work experience, to a Saturday boy, then completing an electrical apprenticeship before rising to the position of stadium manager.
The move to rugby was a big step for Danny, and he acknowledges that the club "took a gamble" on someone that was new to a role that involved groundsmanship duties.
"It was through a friend that I got wind of the position, and Saracens Stadium Manager, Gordon Banks [no, not the Gordon Banks], eventually offered me the job. I've only been here since late November, but it's the best thing I've ever done. The culture in rugby is totally different to football. It's more caring and there's a great union within the club. We're all pulling in the same direction with what we want to achieve on the pitch and in the community."
The decision to move to a new home from their groundsharing period with Watford at Vicarage Road was due in part to the desire from the club, and stadium owners, Barnet Council, to offer the pitch for wider community use. The reconstruction of the Copthall stadium, and the decision by Saracens to lease from the council, was to fulfill the desire of both to marry elite level sport with community use, creating an open community facility in the week and a Premiership rugby venue on match day.
The organising committee behind the decision soon realised that synthetic was the only option. "Our aim was to engage the whole community, and the only way we could do it was to build artificial," explains Scott Murphy, Saracens High Performance Director, who is in charge of training programmes.
"It was my job to see whether it was feasible based on existing research. The usage we wanted would simply not be possible with a natural construction," adds the former Brisbane Lions and Bath Rugby man.
Murphy was a key player in the decision to opt for 3G and to look for the best solution to fuse elite with community use. The overwhelming sentiment, so far, is that the right balance has been struck with synthetic.
"A real benefit of using synthetic technology is that it complies to standards that have player welfare at the forefront," adds Scott. "The surface has to meet strict guidelines for things like the Head Impact Criteria (HIC) so, in many ways, it's more quantifiable and certainly more consistent than natural turf."
"Saracens are confident that time will show artificial turf is a safe and reliable surface for professional rugby."
The new 'Rugger 65' carpet has been specifically developed for rugby union and has passed the most rigorous field tests to ensure optimum playing safety and lifetime. In fact, the standards for synthetic surfaces are now arguably more stringent than natural turf. With less variation in firmness, a hard natural pitch, for example in summer, could pose a greater injury risk to players than synthetic.
The Saracens application is the first for the new polyethylene fibre, which is designed to be extremely durable yet soft. "We usually test artificial carpets to 20,000 cycles," says George Mullan, CEO of Support In Sport (SIS), the manufacturers and installers of the Allianz Park Stadium pitch, as well as the first artificial playing surface for rugby at Newcastle RFC seven years ago. "This surface has been tested to 50,000 cycles under extremely stringent conditions, designed to replicate performance characteristics."
It's these characteristics that are drawing warm praise from those at the club and amongst leading experts, who see synthetic as a trend that will quicken the pace of the game.
"It's a fast surface and plays like a summer pitch all year round," explains Scott. "We'll adapt our strength and conditioning programme to work with the faster surface, and it's a potentially game-changing addition, which could put our guys on the front foot."
Early reaction, following the Cardiff Blues fixture, seemed to indicate that the installation has been an overwhelming success - there's even talk that the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) is eyeing a similar installation for the Millennium Stadium, following a number of reported issues with the current natural turf pitch.
Blues fly half, Ceri Sweeney, commented on the speed of Saracens new surface, noting that the "scrum was good", that there was "little moisture", and there were "not many re-set scrummages".
Perhaps 3G's greatest virtue is its consistency, and this is the characteristic that could bode so well for the future of the game, for players and spectators alike.
"A consistent playing surface will mean we won't need to adapt what we do to the changing conditions, and we'll never have to worry about playing on a bog again," says Scott.
"Of course, we'll still play half our fixtures on natural turf, so our training will need to be carried out on a mix of synthetic and natural, so will split our time between Allianz and our St Albans training site," he continues.
The seeds of the development were first sown in 2011 when Saracens began talks over the possibility of installing synthetic at the stadium to replace the natural pitch.
A key player in the construction was SIS's Director and Contracts Manager, Phil Blackwell, who was tasked with delivering the project following final agreements. Works commenced in September 2012, with four months set aside to complete the project.
"We ascertained the formation levels to allow us to install the drainage systems," explains Phil. "Once appropriate drainage had been put in place, we could begin works on the foundations - the stone sub-base."
The 300mm type 1x sub-base is graded out on top of the drainage system then topped with a dynamic blinding layer, made up of a 2mm-6mm fine grit mix, designed to achieve perfect levels.
An in-situ 25mm elastic layer rubber shock pad, made from a mix of recycled truck tyres and an adhesive, is then poured into a paving machine and laid on top of the dynamic base.
This in-situ layer is the crucial element, and must meet the desired criteria to be used for competitive fixtures. The rubber slab is designed to absorb the force exerted on it, which is more pertinent in a sport like rugby where impact and firm contact with the ground is commonplace.
Once the shock pad is in place, the bespoke Rugger 65 carpet is rolled out in strips, the common edges glued, and the 65mm grass blades infilled with kiln dried silica sand to ensure the surface is not too soft, before being finished off with a styrene butadiene rubber (SBR) crumb infill of between 0.8mm-1.8mm, to accommodate a stud and allow desired traction levels.
The yarn chosen for the carpet is made by Scottish manufacturer Bonar Yarns, who designed it specifically for use in rugby.
Each piece of carpet is 4m wide, laid individually and stretched to ensure, when the surface is in use, that no bunching occurs and a perfectly even profile is maintained.
The carpet sits freely on the shock pad, held together by seaming tape, which unites the carpet as one. The tensile strength of the carpet is tailored to the individual sport, with rugby requiring a greater tensile strength than say football or hockey.
The sand and rubber crumb infill, which sits at the base of the pile, has two purposes; first to act as ballast, and second to make up the mass.
"We use a dry 0.7mm-0.25mm silica sand, quarried in the UK at Leighton Buzzard," says Phil. "The mix is then applied, sand first, using a remotely controlled SandMatic machine, which applies accurate levels using oscillating brushes to work the material into the pile. The pitch is checked for adequate infill levels before every match, which is crucial as the pile cannot be allowed to flatten. If it does, it can become potentially dangerous to players, so diligent maintenance practice is essential to ensure consistent pitch quality."
Danny's move to Saracens, which progressed faster than he expected, proved a baptism of fire, as he quickly realised the magnitude of his new role and how vital the maintenance requirements were to ensure the new pitch met stringent playing criteria.
Not only that, he arrived as Britain shivered in the grip of arctic temperatures and a heavy blanket of snow. "Once works had finished, the installer talked me through what was required, how I should look after the pitch and what machines I would need," Danny recalls. "I was also invited to a one-day maintenance course in Derby, where we covered the detail on how to properly look after the carpet to ensure we get the best from it."
The community dimension means the pitch, and the eight-lane athletics track that surrounds it, is already being well used, and increase in footfall has aided in bedding in the rubber crumb, which is key to ensure it remains at a 5mm depth under the tip of the grass blades.
"Before anyone steps out, I'll walk the pitch, making sure there's no snags or tears in the carpet, no rubbish or any rubber crumb build-up," Danny continues. "Depending on usage, we'll brush with the tractor mounted attachment once a week, and the club has now invested in a snow plough and vacuum salt spreader to clear snow and combat frost and ice so, along with standard maintenance requirements, we've covered all bases to ensure that the playing characteristics don't change as the weather does."
He's welcomed the arrival of a New Holland TC 24 tractor, snow plough, salt spreader and plastic sheeting as he has had to contend with some hairy weather conditions in his short time at Saracens.
"It's fair to say we've had everything thrown at us. Snow, torrential rain, ice and frost - even a little sunshine," he jokes. "The pitch has managed excellently, though and, for me, it's been about learning new skills on the job and understanding the correct ways of managing a synthetic pitch in cold weather."
With temperatures falling below zero throughout, what was, a bitterly cold winter, Danny had to quickly set out his winter maintenance plan, which put in place the steps to keep the pitch clear of ice and snow. "If temperatures look like they are going to drop, we'll treat the pitch with vacuum sand, apply the sheets and brush for frost, if necessary," explains Danny.
"If the snow is deep, we'll push it off the surface with the plough, but this has to be a delicate process. There's a risk with heavy machinery that you can damage the carpet. The plough needs to caress the pitch, skimming the snow off the surface without pushing off the rubber crumb. If rubber crumb is removed, we sweep it to the side so it can be reapplied."
Heavy rainfall can also be a problem if it compacts the sand infill, so keeping the profile loose and the pile standing tall is key to good synthetics maintenance, which Saracens achieve through applying a soft nylon brush tractor attachment to keep the rubber crumb infill to the desired 10-15mm from the tip.
The marriage of dual use facilities, whether it be for football and rugby or elite sport and community (Brighton & Hove Albion's tenure at the Withdean for example) can be tricky when natural turf is involved. Frequent play with little time to recover often puts the two at odds, whilst synthetic pitches can remove this over-use element, as they have been proven with lower league examples like Maidstone United FC. The greater certainty of play in all weathers is a powerful incentive for clubs to switch to synthetic.
The Saracens pitch is not the only community element within Allianz Park Stadium. The eight-lane running track is key to wider use and it's something that they had to consider when deciding how the pitch would be set up for match day events.
"On the one hand, we have to ensure the match pitch is ready, with flags, technical areas and the required 5m run-off zone," explains Danny. "But we have to also keep four lanes of the track open at all times, so we were faced with a headache over how to offer enough run-off while maintaining track space," he adds.
"It was one of the biggest challenges of the entire operation," reveals Phil Blackwell. "We were 2m short around the perimeter, due to the running track, so we needed to come up with a temporary solution. We'd seen something similar at a club in Glasgow and, after much thought, we eventually settled on using prefabricated tile shock pads with 35mm non-infill carpet glued on."
"The 400 tiles are then laid around the perimeter in preparation for matches and removed after, leaving enough track in action at all times."
The pads are also branded with the Allianz Park colours and the pitchside advertising sits around the edge, creating a buffer zone between the pitch and the track.
"If you're going to be successful with community ventures like this, you have to accommodate everyone. I'm pleased that we've been able to realise a solution that suits everyone, and works for the benefit of Saracens and the community." says Danny.
The impact that this first 3G installation could have, if it proves a success, is huge, and marks a significant opportunity for potentially opening them up to not only the rugby market, but also football, where the once icy attitudes towards synthetics are starting to thaw.
If players and supporters are won over by the year-round consistency, speed and enhanced viewing experience that some are predicting, then we could see a real shift toward artificial instead of natural turf before too long.