David Flatman: Benefits of artificial pitches are about as clear as mud
From the Front Row: Clement Poitrenaud said: 'This place is impossible.' I thought: 'We've got you'
Sunday 21 October 2012
I like mud. Always have. I will admit that when my father first took me down to Maidstone RFC and told me to get stuck in, I was less than keen to soil my shiny new Mitre boots, not to mention my expertly coiffed, Shakin' Stevens-style mop. But I did as I was told, piled in and never looked back.
I think it might actually have been the post-training bath that convinced me this was the game for me; as the mud, grime and blood (I caught a boot in the eye, day one) left my kneecaps and elbows and made the bath a wallow, I felt a sense of achievement. I was sore and filthy, but I had earned this bath.
As I consider the memories the game has given me, I realise that, perhaps unsurprisingly, almost all of them involve mud. Those hot, sunny, firm-footed days did not necessarily suit my style of play. I preferred to collide and grapple, not run and chase. I recall a 3-3 draw with French giants Toulouse at the Rec and I regard it as one of the greatest days of my life.
We went to war in what can only be described as a quagmire – rain hammering down, the River Avon seemingly intent on joining us. At half-time Clement Poitrenaud said: "This place is terrible. Impossible." I thought: "We've got you, you won't beat us tonight."
I think of Friday nights at Sale when the pitch was, by any sensible standards, unplayable. Changing whole strips at half-time is common, doing so between warm-up and kick-off is not. We arrived at Stockport a few years ago and fully expected the officials to cancel the game as the pitch was completely under water and no lines were visible. Then I saw Mark Cueto. "Let's get this done, kid," he said. We did. It was brutal, but also beautiful in a British sort of way.
This is why I find myself saddened by the news that Premiership matches might soon be played on artificial pitches. Saracens seem to be leading the way and are keen to build one at their new stadium in Barnet, and I admire their ambition. There are tangible benefits to artificial surfaces, including much-reduced maintenance costs compared to grass pitches. Another benefit, depending both on perspective and on whether other clubs follow suit, is that conditions underfoot would never again have to be considered.
Goal-kickers will rejoice at the end of the nightmare of a disappearing planting foot. The fact that openside flankers would have more energy to hunt might temper their ebullience, however. Wingers will be kicking up their heels in anticipation of the skinnings they plan to administer against hard-scrumming props who won't have seen speed like it. But again, all that slugging through the mud that once heavied the legs of the gorillas will die. They will be knackered, of course, but their increase in agility and repeated speed will be proportionately identical to those out wide.
The overall aim seems to be to make our game more like that of the Southern Hemisphere. I am all for innovation but I am just not convinced that the British public really wants that outcome. In offering a looser, supposedly more expansive game, are we selling something that folk don't actually want?
Supporters will still sit in the dark, getting hammered by the British winter and they will still be freezing cold. I just think the average rugby punter loves the odd war in the mud. They go through a version of the ringer when they attend matches in horrid conditions, and seem to admire players for doing the same in their honour.
We will gain traction underfoot, consistency and points for forward thinking. But we will lose the likes of Charlie Hodgson ruining teams with a kicking and tactical game that relies on an intimate knowledge of a rugby pitch.
The memories of Hodgson or Jonny Wilkinson destroying us single-handedly by bringing to life the nuances of the grass fields they called home will haunt me forever, and I would not change one of them. That is part of their magic, but they might not need those skills much longer, should other big guns join the artificial party.
There won't be any lumps or bumps, soggy patches or any corners of death in their secret tactical armoury. And baths wouldn't be muddy anymore. Who wants a clean bath?
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