Rugby: Artificial Pitch vs. Natural Grass

In both codes of rugby, like many sports, there is always a debate between the merits of an artificial pitch and natural grass. Most stadiums in both rugby league and union have natural grass.

However, there is a growing number of rugby stadiums using an artificial pitch as their main surface. Previously, Raheem Bashir has examined grounds such as BC Place in Vancouver, and FMG Stadium Waikato, in New Zealand.

This article will look at the pros and cons of having artificial turf over natural grass.

Artificial Pitch vs. Natural Grass

Pros – Advancing technology in Turf science

Like many sports, the growth of technology has made it possible for an artificial pitch to look like natural grass. Something that was not possible 20 years ago. For example, the new 4G pitch being used by many teams in rugby union according to Johnny Waterson of The Irish Times. Eric Perez, founder of rugby league’s Toronto Wolfpack, Ottawa Aces XIII, and Canada’s Rugby League team the “Wolverines” explains:

“They feel great about it because uh… it at least an even surface they know what they are going to get on every step,” before adding “you guys got to understand the surface is so sweet it’s like playing on a mattress.”

Perez played a big role in growing the game of rugby league in Canada, which is the second strength of both codes of rugby for artificial pitch.

Rugby and League growth in North America

Rugby union

In both codes of rugby, artificial pitches have grown the game. In rugby union, this allowed the creation of Major League Rugby (MLR). Many of the professional sports teams in the US and Canada play in not just artificial pitches, but also baseball fields.

This is remarkably similar to Major League Soccer (MLS) which had stadiums in over-sized gridiron football stadiums in its early years.

As a result, the US has more professional rugby union teams than rugby union loving nation New Zealand. Canada also has the Toronto Arrows, whose main goal is to develop Canadian players across the country. There have been also Canadian players for the Seattle Seawolves. This includes Brock Staller, who had the most points last year with 217 points.

Rugby League

Before 2010, there was no rugby league played in Canada. Then in 2010, Canada Mounties (the team would later be renamed the Canada Wolverines), Canada’s current professional men rugby league team was born. They currently play at Lamport Stadium, which has artificial grass.

One of their highest attended games was in 2013 where they beat the USA Tomahawks 36-20. According to the Canada Rugby League’s website, attendance was 7,200 at Lamport Stadium.

The Wolverines paved the way for the Toronto Wolfpack, who also play at Lamport Stadium. To learn more about the birth of the Toronto Wolfpack, read here.

The attendance of the Toronto Wolfpack at Lamport has been incredible. The Wolfpack’s last home game in Toronto took place last year in the Championship Grand Final, which drew crowds of 9,974 fans. The Toronto Wolfpack would win that game against the Featherstone Rovers and get promoted to the Betfred Super League.

Super League is the highest level of professional rugby league in the northern hemisphere. Before getting promoted, the Wolfpack averaged over 7,800 fans per game. The Toronto Wolfpack is now the hottest rugby league commodity in Canada.

The success of the Toronto Wolfpack is a big reason why Canada’s capital, Ottawa will be getting a rugby league team called the Aces in 2021. Ottawa, like Toronto, will be playing in an artificial pitch at TD Place Stadium.

There is, however, a double-edged sword with having an artificial pitch. If the artificial grass does not meet expectations, no games can be played at that stadium, which almost happened at Lamport Stadium for the Toronto Wolfpack.

Cons: artificial grass must to be ‘tested’ prior to Kickoff

In the Toronto Wolfpack video documentary, it was revealed that the stadiums with artificial grass had to be tested before a game of rugby league can be played. Eric Perez, founder of the Canada Wolverines, Toronto Wolfpack, and the Ottawa Aces XIII said this in a Rugby AM Toronto Wolfpack documentary:

“First of all, no one knows this when you when you’re using an artificial pitch you need to have it approved so it’s there’s only a few companies in the world that are licensed to test artificial pitches so we had our pitch tested six-seven months prior and it passed but I get a call from Ralph Rimmer and he says we’ve got a major problem here I said what is it he said La Voz Sport have called and have said that they made a mistake six months ago and actually you slightly failed one of the tests.”

Ralph Rimmer then tells Perez that if Lamport Stadium’s playing surface fails again, there would be no home game.

“He says you understand if you fail this test we can’t let Oxford play there will be no game.”

Luckily for the Toronto Wolfpack, they were able to avoid that fate. They passed the test and played their first-ever rugby league game in Canada on May 6th, 2017 against Oxford RLFC.

Artificial turf use in Rugby union

This example also relates to rugby union. According to the England Rugby Union website, a rugby union pitch needs to be tested before players can play at that venue. The venue will be tested the year of its installation and every two years afterwards. This is an extra headache that teams playing in natural grass do not have to deal with.

Rugby union players more likely to get injuries from an artificial pitch

Rugby union players throughout the world prefer natural grass over artificial grass. According to Johnny Waterson of The Irish Times, there is a much higher chance of someone getting an injury on the plastic pitches then natural grass. As said from the official report:

“The overall burden of injuries on natural grass was 2,481 per 1,000 days compared with 4,740 per 1,000 days on artificial turf, a staggering difference.”

This is a big concern for players playing in artificial grass. Former Cardiff RFC player Scott Gibson explains.

Scott Gibson injury caused by artificial turf

An example of a case happened with a Welsh rugby player who played on an artificial 4G pitch. Former Cardiff player Gibson, 27, says five of his teammates have had similar injuries. He currently plays for Brecon RFC. He then goes on according to Katie Sands of Wales Online:

“I played a lot on those 4Gs and I’ve had cuts and things like that the ones from Saturday, they are quite serious”, he said. “Half time, I could see my knee, all the skin had come off both knees – I put Vaseline on, just get on with it.”

The pain became worse when he took a shower. “As soon as I went in the shower afterwards, I could feel the pain then.”

Rugby league Injuries

There is also a concern of injuries in rugby league. However, the problem of the artificial turf is not as concerning as rugby union injuries. According to Thornton Sports, rugby league provides a playing surface that does not exist in rugby union:

“The latest 3G technology replicates the perfect playing conditions and installed 3G pitches should meet RFL and IRB guidelines and accreditations for safety and performance. The pile height, sand and rubber infill and shock pad used in Rugby artificial grass pitches, and the highly engineered nature of the products combined, means that 3G pitches are a true and safe playing surface.”

Rugby league, like rugby union is a dangerous sport according to The Conversation. For example in 2014, Newcastle forward Alex McKinnon’s neck was broken.

Fortunately, in rugby league injuries are less common than rugby union. Over a five-year period, there were 41 moderate to fracture/dislocation injuries. These injuries are substantially less compared to the rugby union, which had 178 injuries in that same period.

Overview: which is better?

The artificial pitch is not perfect. The field has to be tested, and in rugby union’s case, it creates more injuries. However, technology is now available to create these artificial pitches to look like natural grass. They do not have to use ugly gridiron football lines, which would have been the option many years ago.

Furthermore, the biggest strength of an artificial pitch is growing the sport in more countries. In rugby league, Toronto Wolfpack have become the first transatlantic team in the world. The Ottawa Aces XIII will follow in the Wolfpack’s footsteps. Both cities used or will use artificial turf for their professional rugby league sports teams.

Lastly, looking at rugby union, it helped bring professional opportunities for MLR players in North America. The Toronto Arrows like the Toronto Wolfpack plays at Lamport Stadium. Also, Rugby United New York plays at a ballpark at MCU Park.

Artificial pitches are not going away anytime soon. This is especially true for countries that do not have the resources to grow the game on natural grass.

 

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