Saracens break new - artificial - ground
January 21, 2013
Saracens' Allianz Park will play host to Premiership rugby for the first time next month © Getty Images
Opinion by ESPNscrum's Graham Jenkins
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 the new playing surface after Saracens invited all their Premiership rivals to trial it © Getty Images
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."
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.