Glasgow’s Plastic Pitch Clinic

Glasgow Warriors‘ 42-13 win over the Leicester Tigers was an almost perfect example of playing to the conditions. The first round game in the Champions Cup was held at Glasgow’s home in the west end of the city, Scotstoun Stadium. Over the summer the old grass surface was replaced with a plastic-pitch. This plastic-pitch played a big part in the outcome of the game on Friday.

What is a plastic-pitch?

Put simply, a plastic-pitch is any playing surface that is made up entirely of ‘artificial blades of grass’. The original product was Astroturf, which was first used in the Houston Astrodome in the 1960’s. This original application was required because the Astrodome was an indoor arena. The grass used for the baseball field died as the season went on, so a durable solution was required.

After Houston, more American teams switched to artificial turf, especially in the North where weather meant maintaining grass was difficult and expensive. This is where rugby comes in.

Wales, Scotland and England are not particularly easy places to maintain a rugby surface. Heavy rain, frost and regular games of rugby play havoc with grass. For years, surfaces at Scotstoun, the Cardiff Arms Park and Kingston Park in Newcastle have deteriorated rapidly through the season. That original hard, scratchy astroturf would have caused far too many injuries for rugby to use, but it has improved massively over the years. Modern fourth-generation surfaces (4G) are soft, grippy and ‘give a little’ when you apply pressure, just like grass.

Since Cardiff Blues had their plastic-pitch installed, they’ve not had to postpone any games due to conditions or weather, and there’s been relatively few complaints.

Why doesn’t every team have a plastic-pitch?

Rugby on a 4G surface, while far superior to playing on a mud bath of a pitch, is far from perfect. The ball bounces more, which given it’s oval shape means it bounces more randomly. The consistency of the surface changes the nature of forward play too. Mauls and scrums tend not to collapse, which could be seen as a positive–but it leads to more penalties. When a scrum doesn’t collapse the ball must be hooked, which is a skill today some teams simply don’t have anymore.

The quality of the surface also changes the breakdown. Players slide less, so momentum plays less of a role in the outcome of a ruck. Most importantly though, it makes clearouts more dangerous. Already an injury-heavy part of the game, the chance of knee and ankle injuries; when being cleared out, are much higher when the pitch will not give way naturally.

Glasgow played the plastic-pitch perfectly

On Friday, Glasgow played eight minutes of perfect plastic-pitch rugby, to take the game away from Leicester. In the first 20 minutes, they kicked away a lot of ball and had terrible discipline. This left the Scottish side 10-3 down, and with a man in the sin bin. What ensued was incredibly disciplined.

They stopped kicking, they stopped throwing the ball out wide. They let the ‘offside line do the work’ because on a plastic-pitch, ruck ball is very fast. Many teams think they need to play a wide game on artificial grass, but that isn’t necessary. Glasgow kept it simple: pick it up, one pass, over the gainline, reset the ruck, repeat. By consistently taking the next ruck, the defence loses all shape and the attack keeps moving forward. You can play like this on grass obviously, but it never fails on a plastic-pitch.

Glasgow scored three tries in eight minutes playing this way. Leonardo Sarto‘s try came from a pick-and-go, after a long drive of these one-out runners. He was desperate to get the ball out of the ruck as fast as he could, because the Leicester defence wasn’t set yet. Fraser Brown‘s try came from another similar drive.

Josh Strauss caught the kick off, and rather than give the ball to a halfback to clear, or take the safety of the floor, he ran it out. Once they got into the 22, Brown ran a good line and slid out of a tackle. On a muddy grass surface, it’s unlikely that he would have made it back to his feet. And similarly, the third try in this period of play was another pick-and-go within five metres, from Henry Pyrgos.

Leicester got a lot wrong

When Leicester had the ball, they didn’t play the conditions well enough. They were far too quick to release the ball from mauls and scrums. There were penalties and territory to be won, but instead they wanted to play. As a team that usually plays a wide game, this is normal for them but it makes the game harder. Playing this wider game in open play doesn’t help either. While there’s nothing to stop it working on a plastic-pitch, it diminishes the successful quick ruck ball that Glasgow made so much out of.

Leicester kept trying to play this style, and it eventually cost them in points, as they conceded two second half intercept tries. A team of Leicester’s pedigree shouldn’t make the game so easy for their opponents.

Glasgow might have beaten Leicester on a grass surface–they certainly have the talent to do it. What playing on a plastic-pitch did though, was put the result beyond doubt, 42-13.

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