Time to end mud-patches masquerading as pitches

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The Independent Online

Modern Rugby presents many spectacles that may offend those of delicate susceptibilities. The ugliest sight of the last week was the Twickenham pitch for the University match. The Cambridge captain said afterwards that it had indeed been on the rough side.

Modern Rugby presents many spectacles that may offend those of delicate susceptibilities. The ugliest sight of the last week was the Twickenham pitch for the University match. The Cambridge captain said afterwards that it had indeed been on the rough side.

For this mild and entirely justified remark he was denounced comprehensively. One commentator observed that the lad had been lucky to play at HQ at all and that he would be equally fortunate to play there again. Another quoted an unnamed member of the England coaching staff to the effect that the pitch was not going to be improved by allowing "30 students" to cavort on it.

Gone, long gone, are the days when about half the backs on display in the Oxford v Cambridge match, together with a lower proportion of the forwards, would find themselves in the next England trial, to the understandable pique of the displayed club players.

Indeed, what we old journalists have been brought up to call another newspaper AN - in this case a paper which consistently devotes more space to higher education than any other - gave the game a few paragraphs only, restricted to informing the reader that a match had been played in south-west London and that it had been won narrowly by Oxford University.

As things turned out, it was a very good game. It is not entirely a coincidence that the fixture continues to attract five or six times the average attendance at Welford Road or the Rec. Still, this is a digression. The state of our pitches is more important than the future of the Oxford v Cambridge match, which is, in my opinion, slightly more secure than that of several clubs in the Zurich Premiership.

In an interview with my colleague Chris Hewett last Saturday, David Powell said that pitch-making was an infant science - that, given the opportunity, he could make advances in it, to the universal benefit of the human race or, at any rate, of those sections of it who played or watched rugby football. Powell is a former prop for Northampton, England and the Lions. He is not only a farmer but a consultant on pitches.

I feel that he or someone like him should be consulted as soon as possible by the Rugby Football Union. For it is has always struck me as odd that, while the most colossal fuss is made about pitches in cricket, the only difficulties to agitate the administrators of rugby seem to be about drainage and protection against freezing.

I was interested to learn that Twickenham now had a micro-climate of its own. I thought it was only places such as the Cÿte d'Azure (warm and dry) or south-west Wales (warm but wet) that had micro-climates. But when I thought about it I should not have been puzzled. The trouble, it appears, derives from the new stadium.

This does not surprise me. I have never liked the place myself. With my friend Frank Keating, of Another Newspaper, I preferred the old, green, wood-and-corrugated-iron ground. We are in a minority of, it seems, two.

Nor is this nostalgia; or not entirely. In the new stadium you are too far from the pitch. If you are seated high up in one of the stands, the players look like tiny toys. Worst of all, you are unprotected from the elements if the wind and rain are coming from the wrong direction. Architects now design stadiums as if they are to arise on the coast of the Mediterranean rather than in a wet and windy corner of northern Europe.

True, the home crowd have started to cheer England only since the stadium was constructed. But this is surely because England have become successful as a team rather than because they are playing in a new stadium. It is also because, at some time in the 1990s, the English of the kind that attended rugby started to lose their inhibitions - and because a different sort of person took to following England.

The effect of the new building has been, so we are told, to cut off the supply of wind or to alter its direction.

Nor does the pitch at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff look in very much better condition: slightly better, perhaps, but not much. This is curious because the stadium has a retractable roof about whose use, however, the authorities appear to be in a state of the utmost confusion.

Tommy Bedford, the great South African No 8 (who was tiny by modern standards) once suggested that in these islands we should play rugby well into the summer, but have a rest in January and February. There is much to be said for this point of view.

You cannot teach backs on a muddy field any more than you can create batsmen on an uneven pitch. Contrary to mythology, even prop forwards do not enjoy playing in the mud, for the obvious reason that they cannot get a grip. The greatest enemies of rugby are still, however, wind and sunshine. I have never understood why pitches are not constructed automatically on a north-south axis. Nevertheless, the time has come for rugby, like cricket, to have its own inspector of pitches.

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