The new breed of professional rugby player is a fitter and stronger animal. Subsequently, the game is played at a much faster pace making it more exciting to watch.
With this professionalism came better pitch standards, at elite level, and the need for increased training facilities to take the pressure off of the pitch.
Most top clubs now have training/academy grounds which offer a number of additional benefits.
Clubs are now installing third generation (3G) artificial carpet systems alongside their natural turf pitches to accommodate these increased training needs. These are generally a 50-65mm long pile, non-abrasive carpet system, carefully in-filled with recycled rubber to replicate natural turf. Underneath is a pad designed for firmness, yet capable of absorbing impact when a player falls under a heavy tackle.
Careful considerations should be given to choosing the correct system. They are not cheap. And, they are not maintenance free. They require regular care and attention to keep the surface clean and the infill materials agitated.
A full size artificial pitch suitable for rugby (7500m2) can cost up to £525,000 depending on specification; a considerable investment for any club. However, they can generate considerable extra income from hire to other sports such as hockey and football.
Whereas a natural turf pitch will accommodate an average weekly usage of three hours before surface quality is lost, an artificial pitch, being far more durable, can sustain over sixty hours of play per week.
The playability and longevity of any artificial sports surface will be dictated by a number of factors: choice of playing surface (pile type, infill materials), site location, choice of sub base construction (fully engineered or dynamic stone base), quality of installation and, finally, how the facility is managed and maintained.
Most installations will last fifteen years, assuming that the correct maintenance procedures are carried out.
In the UK, the preferred orientation of a pitch is north-south to avoid playing into the setting sun. Any new installation should also identify site boundaries, trees, and existing services and plot the position of roads and access to the site.
A comprehensive sub-soil survey is also a basic requirement prior to final site selection, and certainly prior to construction. For sites with poor sub-soil drainage characteristics, it will be necessary to install a primary drainage system below the surface of a pitch.
Consideration must be given to dealing with surface water drainage, including ingress from other areas such as adjacent higher ground or cut banks. This is normally achieved by providing a cut-off drain (French drain) on the outside edge of the facility.
The resultant surface water must be conveyed away from the facility to an adjacent watercourse. In some cases the only option will be a soakaway.
Having a sound footing and effective drainage system is crucial to the success of the facility. The last thing you want is to find the surface flooding after rain or low spots forming due to subsidence occurring.
The next key component is to ensure you use an approved installer. SAPCA, the Sports and Play Contractors Association, and the LDCA, the Land Drainage Contractors Association, are organisations that promote qualified and experienced contractors.
A facility near trees will give you another set of problems. Areas in the shade of trees will encourage moss and algae forming on the playing surface which can, in turn, affect surface playability with surfaces becoming slippery. Leaf and twig debris can also contaminate and compromise the performance of the pile and infill materials.
Keeping the surface clean is paramount. All users should be made aware of their responsibilities. For example, by using the correct, clean footwear and disposing of chewing gum in a responsible manner the task of ongoing maintenance will be made easier. Signs should be erected to remind both players and spectators of their responsibilities.
To provide the correct level of maintenance for a full size facility (7500m2) will cost anything up to £10,000 per annum.
This is based on a regular programme of brushing, dragmatting and a biannual rejuvenation of the surface that, generally, requires the hiring of specialist equipment. This work will include:
• Removal of grass, litter, leaves, twigs, chewing gum and contaminant soil
• Cleaning from pollution (dust, finer contaminant particles)
• Removal of weeds, algae and moss
• Maintaining a uniform infill
• Conditioning the pile of the carpet
This work is vital and will help to maintain surface playability and prolong the life of the carpet.
Maintenance guidelines for 3G surfaces
The following represent the views of Sweepfast Ltd at the current time and should only be used in conjunction with manufacturers' recommendations.
Regular maintenance should begin immediately the carpet installation is completed. Most installers and manufacturers recommend regular drag-brushing and no more; this is not adequate to keep the surface free draining and in good condition!
All organic matter should be removed from the surface as soon as possible. Playing on a surface covered in leaves and debris leads to a rapid breakdown of the organic matter which is then pushed down into the infill by foot pressure.
Likewise, drag-brushing when debris is present will break it into smaller particles which are then pushed down into the surface. Eventually, these particles, in combination with broken fibres, atmospheric pollution and algal growth, will lead to failure of the drainage characteristics of the infill material. This, in turn, renders the surface dangerous and unplayable, with the resultant need and significant cost of a major renovation.
To stop the above happening all organic debris should be removed from the surface regularly. This can be achieved using leaf blowers or with a Greensweep machine. A full sized rugby pitch can be cleaned with a 4.8 metre sweeper gang in approximately thirty minutes, and will remove most foreign bodies from the surface. As this machine is designed to collect all debris from the surface it will collect any displaced rubber infill, which can be retained, washed and reapplied when dry if needed.
The surface needs to be drag-brushed regularly, ideally weekly, when conditions allow to keep the infill mobile, and the pile de-compacted. This should only be carried out when the surface is clean!
More aggressive tined harrowing can be carried out at intervals during dry periods to keep the infill and the pile mobile and level.
There is now one machine that combines all the above functions, it cleans the surface, sieves the crumb, decompacts and brushes in one pass.
Annually or biannually, depending on the amount of contamination, the infill should be cleaned and recycled using a purpose built machine. These will effectively remove contamination, organic debris and broken fibre from the infill whilst decompacting the carpet and lifting fibres at the same time.
Moss and algae control is really important as, with milder conditions encouraging growth, once they becomes established control is really difficult. Spraying with a proprietary moss killer should be carried out at a minimum, once a year, with regular spot spraying in between times. Ideally, the surface should be sprayed within two weeks of annual infill treatments so that any spores exposed and distributed across the surface are destroyed.
The biggest worry with 3G pitches is that with their sand ballast and rubber crumb infill, contamination builds up at the base of the carpet underneath the infill, unlike sand filled surfaces where the contaminated layer of infill is usually close to the surface. As the pile on many of these pitches is designed to fold over, removing the contamination is a very expensive and difficult task, one that we have not as yet solved. Therefore, the need for strict hygiene and maintenance on these surfaces is paramount!
Keith Porter, Head Groundsman at Leigh Sports Village, says "There is no such thing as maintenance free all weather pitch facility." He has recently purchased a set of rakes and brushes from Charterhouse to maintain the surfaces on a weekly basis with the aim of keeping them clean, to stand the pile up and redistribute the infill material. The pitches are brushed/raked in two directions, usually taking up to three hours on each occasion.
He also has a budget of around £5000 set aside for two deep cleans each year, employing a specialist contractor to come in and carry out the work. The pitch lines are inlaid lines therefore he does not have to worry about marking out.
However, he points out that whatever carpet system you choose the performance of the pitch will be governed by the choice of product, the quality of installation and, more importantly, the after care maintenance regimes.
Taking into account all the work that needs to be undertaken these carpet systems require a substantial annual maintenance budget.
The RFU, IRB and Artificial Grass Pitches
It may seem a little odd, but the position of artificial grass pitches in rugby union is best summed up by saying that good quality, natural turf pitches that are well maintained remain the surface upon which the game will be played competitively.
Artificial pitches supplement this approach by providing playing, training and education facilities with a consistent surface throughout the year upon which the game can develop.
For those clubs, schools, colleges and universities who have limited training space, large numbers of young people playing the game, poor natural turf conditions, high external use by other rugby or soccer users - artificial turf offers a real opportunity to provide a quality surface upon which to play the game.
To that end, the RFU has supported the development of artificial turf training areas to the extent that we now have more artificial grass pitches for rugby than any other country in the world.
In 2003 the International Rugby Board (IRB) produced the 'Performance Specification for Artificial Grass Pitches for Rugby', more commonly known as 'Regulation 22', that provides the game - and suppliers - with the necessary technical detail to produce pitch systems that are appropriate for rugby union.
The artificial surface standards identified in Regulation 22 allows matches to be played on surfaces that meet the standard. Full contact activity, including tackling, rucking and mauling, scrummaging and line outs can take place. The standards are designed to provide an artificial surface that mimics a good natural turf pitch.
The RFU followed this in 2007 with a document based upon Regulation 22, entitled 'Artificial Grass Pitches for Rugby and Association Football'. This provides information to show that rugby and football can be played on artificial surfaces if the IRB criteria are met. It also sets out the testing protocols required for suppliers and clubs/operators to ensure the pitches meet - and continue to meet - the required criteria.
Following amendments to Regulation 22 in January 2008, the RFU has amended its own Regulations for September 2008 to clarify the use of artificial pitches for competitive matches, which now states that:
Where an artificial pitch is to be used, the club where the pitch is situated must:
1. comply with IRB Regulation 22 and ensure that permission has been obtained from the RFU and that such permission has not expired or be invalidated
2. if it proposes to use the artificial pitch in any match in a RFU Competition, inform the RFU in writing at least 30 days before the start of the season or, if during the season, at least 30 days (or such shorter period as the RFU may agree in an emergency) prior to such artificial pitch being used in any RFU Competition.
No distinction is therefore made between artificial and natural turf in terms of the ability to play competitive matches. No player or team will be required to 'voluntarily consent' to play. If a player decides that he does not wish to play on an artificial surface it becomes a matter for his club and not the club at which the artificial surface is situated. A team will no longer be able to cite 'home advantage' as a reason not to play.
The International Rugby Board has asked that participants understand and appreciate any inherent danger in participating in the sport on the pitch.
It should however be noted that there have been no reportable injuries on artificial pitches since they were introduced in 2004. Injuries will occur as on any natural grass surface. No injury, to date, has been identified as having been the result of the surface.
All artificial pitches are required to be tested within three months following completion to confirm that they have been installed to meet IRB Regulation 22 standards. This field testing is carried out by independent test laboratories on behalf of the club/operator. The club/operator is then required to provide the RFU with a copy of the report in order to gain permission for the use of the artificial grass pitch for the next two years.
RFU permission requires the club/operator to:
1. follow the regulations detailed in the RFU Handbook for the use of artificial surfaces
2. monitor and log injuries sustained by players participating on the pitch in line with the normal injury reporting procedures set out by the RFU
3. ensure that an appropriate maintenance programme using appropriate maintenance machinery is undertaken and logged in accordance with a maintenance programme issued by the installer. This should be requested from the contracted installer if not made available
The club/operator will then be required to test the artificial grass pitch before the end of the two year period to provide evidence that the pitch continues to meet the standards.
If you have any queries contact Darren Bailey at the IRB on Darren.firstname.lastname@example.org