Saracens point way forward at new home
March 28, 2013
Owen Farrell's accuracy hasn't been overly affected by Saracens' change of home © Getty Images
You couldn't help wonder while watching Saracens dismantle Harlequins with an efficiency as chilling as the North London weather last Sunday whether we were watching rugby union's future.
Here was the Premiership's form team, full of stellar names and some of the brightest young stars in the game systematically taking the champions apart on a space-age pitch in their impressive new home. As Faz and the Plastic Population might say, the only way is up.
Not all is yet to Owen Farrell's liking as he finds his feet on the brilliantly green synthetic fibres and takes aim at the red posts. The stands at either end of Allianz Park are so low that when England's fly-half looks for a target during his kicking routine, say an advertising hoarding, an executive box or the bloke in row Y, he sees just open sky.
Apparently that's a problem for a kicker like him, who likes to visualise something beyond the uprights. You can be sure though that it won't take him long to grow accustomed to that and also to working off a tee that sits slightly higher off the half-a-million-pound surface than it would on conventional grass.
Early evidence suggests it won't take the rest of us long to fall in love with the place either. Saracens have now played four games on their new surface in their new arena and for the time being both seem to be enjoying largely universal approval.
There are still one or two issues with the much-talked-about synthetic (the club aren't mad on the words plastic or artificial) surface that remain unanswered and only will be over the course of a season or so.
One is to do with player welfare and the impact a firmer pitch - albeit one with a bit of "give" in it thanks to the layer of cushioning foam below - will have on joints and muscles in the long-term. The other is perhaps a little less obvious and involves the potential risk of infection.
The rugby league club Widnes, who use a similar if not identical surface, are finding players picking up more scrapes and abrasions than usual as they slide around on the synthetic fibre. They've actually noticed an increase in the number of leg infections and wonder if it might be because players' spit, which is broken down and neutralised organically on a natural grass pitch, isn't on theirs. It's a scientific question way beyond the pea-sized mind of a mere commentator, but one that is intriguing nonetheless.
The over-riding sense you get from other Aviva Premiership clubs though is that it won't be long before the league is played out on exclusively synthetic surfaces and good old fashioned grass will once again be the domain of cows.
Apparently Exeter's chief executive Tony Roe left enthusing about what he'd seen after their recent trip to Hendon and another big cheese told me this week he'd be disappointed if all twelve clubs hadn't switched within the next five years. Furthermore, if they all took the decision en-bloc they might save a few bob on a bulk order.
But Allianz Park is about much more than just the pitch. You could hear the pride in chairman Nigel Wray's voice as he officially opened their new home last Sunday and supporters have reacted in their numbers to finally having a place of their own. From the hundreds of kids playing mini-rugby before kick-off, through pizzas delivered to your seat at half-time to signs that positively encourage you to go on the pitch afterwards, this is a good day out in more ways than one.
It's still a work in progress of course - some ideas will work, some won't. Thankfully the Fat Lady (actually a slightly rotund bloke) who launched prematurely into opera from the stands before the end of the match in the opening weeks appears to have been ditched. Furthermore a club that has the word "humility" emblazoned above the main stand could probably also do without a PA announcer welcoming the team onto the pitch as "the soon-to-be Premiership champions."
These are mere trifles though. Once the landscapers have been busy over the summer adding a splash of colour here and there, Allianz Park will become one of the must-visit venues during the season and the most forward-thinking of clubs will finally have a place they can call home again. It might even be the home of the champions come May.
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Nick Mullins is lead commentator for live Aviva Premiership Rugby on ESPN
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