Growth on and off the pitch

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The Stade de France in Paris has announced that it has made the change from all-natural turf to Reinforced Natural Turf (RNT). The move means that Italy’s Stadio Olimpico is the only natural ground left in the RBS 6 Nations rugby union competition.

Imperfect fields have been something of a hallmark of the annual tournament over the past decade with the French stadium found especially wanting last year. When it hosted the England team in 2015, the ground inspired one commentator to describe it as looking like “Aintree after the Grand National” but, in fairness, they were not alone.

Most of the participating nations having been on the receiving end of criticism of the state of their home stadia in the modern era – with the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Wales, having issues with its pallet-based pitch structure, and Edinburgh, Scotland’s Murrayfield pitch having fallen victim to an unprecedented influx of nematodes which wreaked havoc on its roots.

While the French Rugby Federation’s (FFR) announcement brings rugby closer in line with its soccer counterparts, in some respects necessity has been the mother of invention in the world of the oval ball. Today’s rugby players are vast – the Welsh pack is currently the biggest, having recorded an average of 18 stone per man at the 2015 Rugby World Cup held in England. Pity the natural surface that has to cope with that force scrummaging on it!

As is often the way, what is happening at the elite end of the sport is creating waves throughout the supporting layers. Today, five of the Aviva Premiership team stadia in the UK currently have either fully synthetic or RNT pitches, with a possible sixth about to come in line in the form of Harlequin’s home ground, The Stoop, in southwest London.

Further toward grassroots level, it has been reported that English junior clubs can look forward to US$69.7m of World Cup legacy investment from the Rugby Football Union (RFU), which will fund approximately 100 artificial pitches in a bid to grow the game.  

With one of the inherent benefits of RNT and artificial playing surfaces being that clubs enjoy safeguarded incomes (they can sell more pitch-time and cancel fewer games) the RFU isn’t just helping increase participation, it is making a financially shrewd move too.

Despite the host’s early exit from the World Cup, England should be praised not only for hosting a great spectacle but also for spending its spoils well. With the Japan 2019 World Cup preparations well underway, the sport can only hope for equalled quality both on and from the pitches.

February 26, 2016

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