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Saracens break new - artificial - ground
Graham Jenkins
January 21, 2013
A general view of Saracens' Allianz Park home ground, Allianz Park, Barnet, England, January 21, 2013
Saracens' Allianz Park will play host to Premiership rugby for the first time next month © Getty Images
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Opinion by ESPNscrum's Graham Jenkins

  • Saracens' new hi-tech playing surface is a long way from the 'plastic' or carpet-over-concrete pitches that used to grace Loftus Road and Kenilworth Road in the 1980s and which gave artificial turf a bad name.
  • Allianz Park is now the home of a purpose-built pitch that is surprisingly lush and - we are promised - up to the rigours of top-flight rugby. On this evidence it certainly puts a spring in your step and has a surprisingly amount of give although the experts suggest nothing more than a moulded is required - whether that is enough to scrum effectively remains to be seen.
  • The manufacturers and Saracens insist the 'playability' and the 'ball to surface relationship' is the same as that with natural turf and they promise the roll and the bounce will not change significantly when there has been a lot of rain - so effective is the drainage. While this will no doubt improve winter rugby as a spectacle, they admit snow still brings with it an issue or two.
  • Data also reveals you can accelerate quicker than on grass which could lead to more linebreaks - or bigger impacts. The concern over possible injuries extends to scrums with no real evidence currently available from which to draw conclusions. We are told extensive testing has produced encouraging 'shock absorption', 'vertical deformation' and 'energy restitution' data and crucially the pitch falls within the 'head injury criteria' due to the unprecedented level of 'shock pads' used in its construction.
  • So will it foster a 'faster' game? No doubt. A 'safer' game? Jury's out as there is not enough evidence to ponder. A 'more entertaining game'? It certainly has our attention - now it's up to the players to deliver.

Premiership Rugby chief Mark McCafferty has heaped praise on Saracens for pushing the boundaries by installing an artificial pitch at their new Allianz Park stadium - and predicted that other clubs will embrace the technology.

Saracens unveiled the high-tech playing surface - the first specifically designed for rugby union - earlier today ahead of their first game on the pitch against Cardiff Blues in the Anglo-Welsh Cup this weekend. Exeter Chiefs will be the first Premiership side to visit on February 16 - for a game that will double as the official opening - and McCafferty believes such pitches could soon become common place in English rugby's top flight.

"All credit to Saracens for taking this step and trying to move the sport forward," said McCafferty. "If this goes well, which I hope it will, I can see a number of clubs wanting to do it because of the opportunities it provides both within the community and commercially which is what a lot of clubs need - they need to bring in revenue on non-match days and this kind of surface will allow you to do all sorts of things."

Saracens chief executive Ed Griffiths hopes it will, "encourage a faster, safer and more entertaining game of rugby" but McCafferty admits it may not be to everyone's liking with many still relating artificial pitches to those used by football clubs QPR and Luton in the 1980s - that were eventually banned. "It is new, and people will always question things that are new," said McCafferty.

"But I think that 14 of the 32 NFL sides are now on artificial turf which is getting on for half so people are clearly making that choice. Long term I can see quite a number of clubs doing the same, if it goes well. But I doubt whether it will be all the league because people always want a point of difference."

Griffiths admits his club are heading into the unknown but is buoyed by the initial reaction of the Saracens players which has been positive and assured reporters that the new surface was 'Ash-Splash'-proof in reference to winger Chris Ashton's fondness for launching himself into the air as he crosses the tryline. All jokes aside, he is also convinced that this is a step in the right direction for the club and the sport. "There is potential for rugby to be transformed," he said. "It is absolutely the right thing and will produce a faster, safer and more entertaining game. Anyone who has seen some the recent winter games will agree. We have played on pitches where there was not one single blade of grass and I can't think that that is good for rugby.

"The technology is right now and they can effectively replicate that first game of the season, that perfect pitch at the end of summer. If we can replicate that pitch on any weekend of the year that has got to be good for the game."

Griffiths is also aware that unions and clubs across the world are watching closely. "The world of rugby from New Zealand to South Africa, to Wales and I hear the same at Murrayfield, they are all waiting to see how this pitch plays and how it runs. All our evidence so far is that it will play magnificently well. That means within three or five years, the majority of professional rugby pitches I think will probably have been done."

Exeter's James Parks tries out Saracens' new playing surface, Allianz Park, Barnet, England, January 21, 2013
Exeter's James Parks tries out the new playing surface after Saracens invited all their Premiership rivals to trial it © Getty Images
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Saracens' Premiership rivals will perhaps be the keenest of observers. Representatives from all the country's leading clubs were invited to inspect the new pitch and Saracens insist they will roll the welcome mat out at anytime to any other club wanting to train on the surface and get accustomed to it before tackling its owners. They do not want to be seen to be trying to get an unfair advantage with their use of this technology.

"When we asked (Premiership Rugby) permission to do this there was an overwhelming vote in favour of us allowing us to go ahead with it," explained Griffiths. "I think there is a lot of interest and they are curious and unsure. And some of our players are unsure. You say artificial turf and people still think of Luton and QPR and there is a mindset that needs to be changed."

Griffiths is clearly proud of his forward-thinking club's latest innovation and is determined to see the pitch put to good use - be that an attractive band of top-class rugby or by one of the 87 schools in the Barnet area that will be granted free access to the facility on non-match days. "At every other stadium in the country there will be a sign that says keep off the grass," said Griffiths. "At Allianz Park we have a sign that says keep on the grass."

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
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