Saracens will play their first home game on the brand new artificial pitch at Allianz Park in North London (pictured) when they take on Cardiff Blues in the LV= Cup on 27 January. The match will be a landmark occasion but the debate still rages about whether playing on a synthetic surface is more likely to cause injuries than performing on natural turf.
The International Rugby Board (IRB) and the Rugby Football Union (RFU) have both given their full backing to the former English champions and say that a detailed study had not raised any `statistically significant` injury concerns.
Speaking at Rugby Expo 2012, Simon Winman, the RFU's head of funding and facilities, explained why he believes the Saracens initiative is a good move: "Saracens are stretching the boundaries; they needed a home, a base from which they could go into the community and develop a sporting hub for football, swimming and athletics.
"The artificial pitch is something new, something different. Saracens already have a 40m x 40m training pitch where they have tested ball bounce, traction and technique and have gathered medical reaction to the surface."
Steve Griffiths, the IRB's head of technical services, showed Running Rugby the results of a study made in 2010 which compared the incidence, nature, and cause of injuries sustained in rugby union played on artificial turf and grass. A two-season investigation of match injuries sustained by six teams competing in Hong Kong's Division 1 and training injuries sustained by two teams in the English Premiership found there were "no significant differences in the overall incidence of injuries sustained on the two surfaces".
An admission that anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries were nearly four times higher on artificial turf than grass was described in the report as "not statistically significant" but a footnote said that the phenomenon was "worthy of further study".
The Allianz Park pitch takes shape
The IRB and RFU are not alone in wanting to pursue the artificial turf option; Football governing bodies FIFA and UEFA have allowed clubs to move away from grass with lower costs, ease of maintenance and climates that make it hard to develop natural grass pitches offered as compelling reasons for the change. Furthermore, modern stadiums with roofs are not seen as the ideal environment for grass growth.
The organisations and their preferred suppliers say that it is invidious to lump modern artificial turf with the unloved first generation surfaces used by football clubs such as Queens Park Rangers and Luton Town in the 1980s. The third generation (`3G`) pitches used now were introduced over a decade ago, made of longer (minimum 40 mm) synthetic fibres which are more widely spread and filled with rubber granules.
The IRB introduced `Regulation 22` in 2003 in a bid to ensure that 3G surfaces replicate the playing qualities of good quality natural grass. The development of its `one turf` concept included the use of the Head Injury Criterion (HIC), a measure of the likelihood of head injury arising from an impact, to assess the effect of falling head first on to artificial turf as opposed to grass.
The IRB believe that artificial turf can be safer than its natural counterpart even on the grandest of stages, where for generations players have performed on pitches baked hard by hot, dry climates.
"The HIC was far worse at Ellis Park in Johannesburg than on any artificial turf," says Griffiths.
Picture right Ellis Park: Surface said to be harder than an artificial pitch
Even so, critics of the move towards non-natural turf point to the experiences of players at Widnes Vikings' Stobart Stadium during the 2012 Super League season, where friction burns were reported.
"The friction burns sustained at Widnes were down to a Local Authority-owned pitch which was poorly maintained," argues Griffiths. "The pitch at Saracens will be maintained by Saracens and will be brushed before every match. If you have no brushing then you are effectively sliding on plastic. It's a 65mm pitch with an infill made of sand with a rubber crumb on which players will use moulded studs."
Not all governing bodies are so keen. A return to artificial pitches in professional English football looks unlikely after the Football League said in June that consultation of over 1,700 clubs, fans and official bodies found "overwhelming" opposition to the idea. The Premier League and Professional Footballers' Association are also against the concept.
Doubts are also raised from a study carried out in the United States, where top-class sport on artificial turf is commonplace. Researchers from Stanford University reported that college US footballers suffer knee injuries about 40 per cent more often when playing on an artificial surface compared to when they're playing on grass.
The team at Stanford examined cases of damage to the ACL between 2004 and 2009 and found 318 such injuries; There were approximately 18 injuries for every 100,000 outings on artificial surfaces with infill, compared to 14 injuries for every 100,000 practices or games on artificial turf without fill or natural grass.
Players were 1.39 times as likely to be injured when playing on modern artificial turf as they were when playing on grass.
"Players are able to get a better grip on turf than on grass -- perhaps too good a grip," report author Dr Jason Dragoo explains. "So if you are in the wrong position, because your leg doesn't give way as it does on grass, it can distribute that force to your knee and cause an injury."
It is hoped that the work undertaken by boot manufacturers to develop footwear adapted for use on modern artificial pitches will allow players to turn with greater ease and so negate that problem. The proof will come from evidence gathered at Allianz Stadium from 27 January onwards.
Article sourced from Running Rugby