Strong grounds for storming the weather

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The Independent Online
Sport's progress through the 20th Century has been a triumph of growth and development. It now enthralls if not enslaves a large proportion of the earth's population and offers the nations their only genuinely unifying festivals. Sport has consistently given the world dramatic moments in superb settings and added greatly to our pantheon of heroes and heroines. It has helped to defeat apartheid, break down class barriers and create an equality of opportunity.

So how is it that a bit of nasty weather can still bring the whole show skidding to a halt? With just under three circuits to go before the century runs its full course, sport has to acknowledge that one battle it has manifestly failed to win is the annual confrontation against the roughest of the elements. The challenge involves different problems in different climes but even in that cutest of countries, the United States of America, the only answer has been to flee from nature altogether and play undercover on Astroturf.

For many of us, that is more of a surrender than a solution but we scoff from a position of suspect strength. 100 years has seen little advance on the straw and braziers with which our forefathers tried to coax the frost out of the winter turf. We must acknowledge the efforts of those who have persisted valiantly with hot-air blowers and balloons and give credit, especially, to the football clubs who were able to stage their FA Cup third round ties yesterday, mostly due to their foresight in installing undersoil heating.

A network of hot-water pipes eight inches below the surface of their pitches hardly puts them at the leading edge of modern technology but at least they are doing their utmost to fulfill their function in our lives. Rugby, still moving uncertainly into the professional age, fared deplorably less well and horse racing has leaned heavily on the all-weather tracks. Over 50 race meetings have been lost this season and without the initiative shown by the country's three all-weather courses at Lingfield, Wolverhampton and Southwell the sport would have been almost at a standstill over the holiday period.

There are those who would attempt to win the battle by avoiding it altogether. The inevitable calls for a mid-winter break have resounded around both football and rugby. These have echoed down the years and sound no more sensible now than they ever did. A two-week break, a month or even two months would all carry the same unacceptable risk. Our bad weather has an unpredictable pounce and could strike at any time between November and April. Often, it doesn't arrive at all with any destructive force.

More than at any time in the past, we need to maintain our rigidly structured sporting year to make the fullest use of the revolution in television coverage that is bursting upon us. It would be foolish to venture a pause in the calendar when, traditionally, our interest is at its peak. FA Cup fever is never more virulent and widespread than in January and February. The hottest tickets in sport are those for the Five Nations championship matches in the first three months of the year. One juggles such enthusiasm at one's peril.

It is still too early to judge whether rugby league's move from winter to summer will improve the game's spectator base. The big attendances at Wigan and Leeds for the friendly matches they arranged on Boxing Day merely proved the strength they've left behind them. In the absence of horse racing on regular tracks on the same day, over 2,000 fans made it to the all-weather track at Lingfield for their hurriedly-arranged meeting. Over 3,000 turned up at Catford's greyhound meeting, there were over 1,100 at Peterborough and increased crowds at most of the country's other dog tracks that day. There is a strong sporting appetite at this time of the year that demands to be satisfied and, certainly, cannot be ignored.

Sadly, there were many whose attempts to satisfy it were cruelly frustrated and a lot of them were to be found in rugby where there is a new and understandable urgency to attract big crowds. The anxiety caused controversial late postponements last weekend and few more disappointingly than at Saracens when their home League match against Orrell was called off only 30 minutes before kick-off.

Saracens were desperate to present their expensive new signing Francois Pienaar and waited hopefully for a lunchtime thaw that never came. Spectators had their admission money returned and Orrell are claiming big compensation for their wasted journey. How Saracens must have envied Cardiff who, when their pitch was declared unplayable for their vital match against Pontypridd, popped next door to the National Stadium where the undersoil heating had been turned on in readiness for such a contingency.

They neglected to open enough turnstiles, and the match kicked off 15 minutes late, but you can't have everything. The point is that they played an exciting game in front of an estimated 15,000 and everyone went home satisfied, except Cardiff who got beat.

Why didn't silly old Saracens do the same and pop down to Twickenham? I hear you ask. You'd better brace yourself for the news that Twickenham do NOT have undersoil heating. They have a brand new stadium that cost untold millions, stands that reach halfway to the moon, plush committee rooms and a wine cellar but they don't have pounds 200,000 worth of undersoil heating.

The Rugby Football Union spent most of last year battling against their clubs for the right to remain the brains behind the game. How sad that they can't even offer the London-based clubs a warm haven during the rigours of winter. At least, Wasps hope to take advantage of such a boon today but that's only because they share Queens Park Rangers's Loftus Road ground.

Undersoil heating is not always efficient in extreme conditions but it has long been the best protection available and it is remarkable that more of our grounds don't have it. The Premiership will soon make it compulsory for all their member clubs and I would like to think that all the new stadiums being built with the help of our Lottery money are being more carefully planned.

The Welsh Rugby Union have a retractable roof planned for their proposed new stadium. With the advance of turf technology it may be possible for a pitch eventually to flourish in an enclosed and air-conditioned space. Perhaps our governing bodies would at last get off their backsides and investigate all possibilities on our behalf.

It would be good to say to our grandchildren - for your freeze-free futures we gave our frozen pasts.

I Was prevented from giving my traditional New Year predictions last Sunday but I am delighted to pass on the tips I have already supported with my bookmaker.

Liverpool will win the Premiership in a close finish. Wales will win the Triple Crown and the Championship. I placed this bet confident that my colleague Jonathan Davies would be playing. I stick to this prediction despite his place now being in doubt; although I would get my money back if I could.

Revoque will win the French 2,000 Guineas and The Derby, although I am told that Happy Valentine would be the safer bet for Epsom. I take Rough Quest to win the Grand National again, despite strong alternative advice for Lo Stregone.