Problems surface at national stadiums

By Chris Hewett
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The Independent Online

Twickenham and the Millennium Stadium may be impressive arenas, but their pitches are letting the side down.

Twickenham and the Millennium Stadium may be impressive arenas, but their pitches are letting the side down.

They have quite a nerve, these Oxbridge chaps. "Twickenham? Worst pitch I've played on all season," pronounced M W D Haslett, a post-graduate member of the law faculty at St Catharine's, Cambridge, and captain of the Light Blue XV in Tuesday's rugby union Varsity match. The poor petal might have done better to keep the complaints to a minimum and count his blessings instead. As one exasperated member of the England coaching staff put it: "If the surface is that bad, why the hell are we allowing 30 students to race around on it?"

Haslett had a point, all the same: Twickenham is in a desperate state, at its worst for many years. When the red rose coaches reprimanded Iain Balshaw, the Bath back, for wasting what appeared to be a clear-cut scoring opportunity during the flood-water Test against Argentina three weeks ago, he explained that changes of direction were not an option for players running at pace. "Once I'd started going off my right foot, I had to keep going off my right foot," Balshaw said. "Had I attempted to go off my left, I'd have ended up on my backside."

It is not just Twickenham, either. That other great cathedral of northern hemisphere rugby, the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, habitually looks like Barry Island beach on a bad day, irrespective of whether the roof is open or closed.

This week, a three-man delegation from the Welsh Rugby Union travelled to New Jersey to check out pitch protection techniques at the New York Giants' gridiron stadium in East Rutherford. The Americans play on palletised grass, just like the Welsh rugby team, yet their version is somehow a lot less muddy.

According to eminent members of the southern hemisphere brains trust - outstanding strategists like Bob Dwyer and John Hart - British back play cannot conceivably reach full flower while its roots are stuck in the sporting equivalent of Grimpen Mire. "I spent five years working with sides on the pitches here, and it was only when I returned to Sydney that I fully understood the massive advantage of training and preparing in decent conditions," said Dwyer, the World Cup-winning Wallaby coach. "It's a matter of morale, as much as anything. If players train on bad surfaces week in and week out, it's not surprising that their enthusiasm dips and they are more reluctant to try new things."

If the Rugby Football Union has any sense - and the jury is still out on that one - it will seek the help of David Powell, the winner of 11 England front-row caps between 1966 and 1971 and the current ground manager at Northampton. Powell has transformed a morass of a Franklin's Gardens surface into a field of Elysian quality. "We've had a lot of rain, like everyone else, but it will be good for this weekend's game against Gloucester," he announced with some pride - and, together with the former county cricketer Nigel Felton, frequently performs similar horticultural miracles at stadia up and down the country.

"Twickenham is the least used pitch in the country, yet it is failing to cope with the few matches that are played on it," Powell pointed out. "Given that we've just had the wettest autumn on record, I'm not sure there will be any significant improvement in the playing surface until the spring.

"Certainly, I'll be very surprised if the pitch is as it should be for the start of the Six Nations in February. It can be sorted, but there needs to be a radical approach.

"It's not rocket science, this business. We're talking about compaction, as any farmer will tell you. If you put 150 dairy cattle on a piece of land, they will compact it: when the wet weather comes, you're left with an inch and a half of bog on the surface and a compacted area underneath that is as dry as a stick. You can have the best drainage system in the world, but if you don't get the water from the surface into the drains, it won't work."

Basically, that's what has happened at Twickenham.

"Most of the knackered playing surfaces in the country, be they at football or rugby grounds, are suffering from the same condition. The answer is to rip up the pitch, break the compaction and get the drainage operating properly. But the deeper issue is one of investment, of raising the standard of groundsmanship and backing it up with a realistic budget.

"In rugby, people have been so obsessed with building their theatres that they've forgotten about the stages. It's a serious oversight: in the professional era, people do not want to watch players rolling around in six inches of mud."

Like any good prop forward, Powell rather enjoyed spending wallowing in a swamp. "It didn't matter so much in my day. When I ran out at Twickenham for my first cap, the grass came up over my boots. Cardiff was worse still, and when I went to New Zealand with the Lions in 1966 and turned out against Waikato, we played in what I can only describe as liquid shit. No one was too worried about it. But when Barrie Corless was appointed Northampton's first full-time coach 10 years or so ago, he took one look at the pitch and said: 'If we want to play some football at this club, we'll have to get that sorted'. Suddenly, everyone was looking at me."

Powell admires the way football has treated the issue over the last decade, and fears that rugby will be left behind if it fails to treat pitch protection equally seriously. "There is still too little being spent in too many places," he said.

"The Premiership teams playing at football grounds - Saracens, Wasps, London Irish - are fine, and I think the groundstaff at Harlequins do a tremendous job with The Stoop. We have a good surface at Northampton, and we've turned things around at Bath, too. But down in the southern hemisphere, where conditions used to be bloody awful, everyone understands the importance of a decent surface."

Unless the lamentable playing conditions in London and Cardiff are rectified, the southern hemisphere push for a unified "global" season will gather momentum, to the disquiet of those who do not want to watch rugby in high summer. Powell does not buy the SANZA argument? "There is absolutely no reason why the European season should be shifted to fit in with the southern hemisphere. How often do you see the football boys playing in mud up to their knees these days? Never, for the simple reason that the right money has been spent for the benefit of the sport.

"We can do it in rugby, too. Look at Murrayfield. Of all the major rugby cities in Britain and Ireland, Edinburgh is most under the cosh from the weather, yet it plays well 99 per cent of the time.

"Mind you, they've always had it right up there. I can remember propping in a Calcutta Cup match and being astonished at spotting a single daisy on the pitch."

As things stand right now, Twickenham is more likely to throw up one water lily and a colony of newts.