French humiliated by frozen pitch

The France-England rugby match on Saturday is threatened by the state of the controversial pitch at the brand new, pounds 270m showpiece World Cup stadium just outside Paris.

If the game is postponed, it would be the second England international in a matter of days - following the first cricket Test in Jamaica - to be called off because of pitch problems.

The turf at the Stade de France - close to unplayable when France played Spain at football last week - is frozen to a depth of five centimetres, with further frost on the way.

Environmental groups have been warning for months that the pitch could be threatened by seeping chemical and gases from the heavily polluted former gasworks site on which the stadium was constructed.

Jackie Bonnemains, of the pressure group Robin des Bois (Robin Hood), said yesterday that the threat of gas seepage explained why no underground heating system was installed. "According to our information, an electric heating system of this kind could have reacted with the gases and caused an explosion."

The cold weather may not be the only problem. The pitch was laid last autumn and has been giving concern for weeks. It is understood that the world football body, Fifa, asked for the turf to be relaid after last week's inaugural game. The turf was said to be threadbare and cut up badly during the match.

The French news agency AFP reported yesterday that the France-England game was "heavily threatened". This was later rejected as an "over-dramatisation" by the French Rugby Federation and the consortium which runs the stadium.

The stadium organisers said the pitch would be covered by a huge blanket and warm air would be pumped underneath to unfreeze the turf. The pitch would be "perfectly operational", not just for Saturday but for the England training session promised for Thursday.

Serious questions remained, however, such as why had the pitch not been covered during the severe frost at the weekend? Why had the state-of-the- art stadium not been equipped with undersoil heating?

The game cannot be switched to the Parc des Princes, its old venue, because 80,000 tickets have been sold and the Parc only holds 55,000.

If the pitch does prove unplayable, it is likely that the game will be postponed until the spring.

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