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Saracens to be first professional rugby union club to play on an artificial pitch when they take on Cardiff Blues on Sunday
“We're jumping in a new car, we’ve got the keys and we’re going to drive it,” Saracens performance director Scott Murphy said.
It’s certainly been a long, and at times complicated, road but this Sunday Saracens are going where no rugby union club has ever gone before.
The groundbreaking artificial pitch at the club’s new stadium at Allianz Park has never been used before in professional rugby union anywhere in the world.
There have been test games played in Asia and local matches, but when the Men in Black take on Cardiff Blues in the LV=Cup it will be the first time ever that bits of black rubber, rather than mud, come off a professional player's boots.
Murphy, who has researched and directed the £500,000 installation, insists the turf will play much the same as a firm grass pitch in summer time.
“Artificial turf is a very good alternative to natural grass – the ball bounces very similarly to a normal grass pitch and it plays almost exactly the same.
“The beauty of the artifical turf is that it’s available all the year round and very frequently so you can play several games in a day, seven days a week.”
Saracens are known for their eagernerss to be at the front of everything innovative in the sport, but there is more to the project than simply a desire to be first.
Whilst a grass pitch can be used for a maximum of ten hours a week, and in the winter months often less, Saracens’ surface can comfortably withstand 40 hours of action a week whatever the weather.
“Matches shouldn’t ever be called off on this pitch,” Murphy argues. “Because of health and safety outside the ground and so on, maybe, but because of the pitch? No.”
There are without doubt financial rewards to be gained from a pitch than is used more and needs to be maintained less.
But what about the team?
“What we have here is much like the southern hemisphere have for the majority of their playing season – you have the ability to play a full 15-man game that will encourage handling and running with the ball,” Murphy said.
“We think with a better surface perhaps the opportunities will be more prevalent and perhaps the try-count will increase.”
Whether or not the artificial pitch, with its firmer, faster and more dynamic attributes, will transform the Men in Black's back line – currently the most try-shy in the league – is yet to be seen.
More concerning to director of rugby Mark McCall will be his players’ fitness.
Evidence gathered in America, where 14 NFL teams currently use artifical surfaces, has been at best, mixed.
Murphy accepts there is an element of risk but insists studies looking into football in Norway – where artificial pitches are commonplace – indicate Saracens players are no more likely to be injured on a plastic surface than a grass one.
“There’s at least 12 articles that have been published that indicate artificial turf is a safe alternative to natural grass and there is no change to the severity or frequency of injuries.
“If you’re going to be a pioneer you’re obviously going into unfamilar territory but this is not a willy-nilly process.
“We’ve taken the best approach that we think minimises the risk of injuries and in fact a couple of articles suggest it may even perhaps reduce the amount of injury because you have a consistent surface so the body doesn’t need to adapt so much.”
The theories will be borne out by results, and ultimately it’s results on the field that will dictate whether Sarries' latest experiment is deemed a success.
Opponents will come to Allianz Park unfamiliar with the intricacies of the rubber crumb but the club insist they aren’t looking to gain an unfair advantage.
Teams are welcome to practise on the pitch before matches and Saracens themselves will continue to train on grass at their base in St Albans in preparation for away games.
Murphy believes in ten years time many more rugby teams will have followed the Saracens road, and if that is the case, it will be the club’s boldest innovation yet.
He said: “[CEO] Edward Griffiths came to me and said ‘is this possible?’ I looked into it, came back and said ‘yes, hand on heart I think it is possible, if we’re happy to be the pioneers, let’s take the plunge’.”
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