Over the last few seasons a series of high-profile players have come out in opposition to artificial pitches, of the kind found at Saracens, Newcastle, Worcester and Glasgow. The list includes Steff Evans, Johnny McNicholl, Danny Care, Mike Brown, Jack Nowell (who refuses to play on them) and, most recently, Alex Mitchell, who tweeted a picture of his severe burns, adding “say NO to these 4G pitches.” Last season, both Jack Willis and Jonathan Joseph suffered long term leg injuries after catching their studs at Allianz Park.
According to Ed Slater, the “main concern is how stiff the body feels after playing on an artificial pitch… It’s an indicator to me there’s more stress on the body.” Slater continued, adding, “players are changing their game to minimise the risk of injury.”
The evidence for this is far from simply circumstantial. The Rugby Players Association is demanding an end to artificial pitches, on the grounds that data from the past five seasons shows it takes 39 days to recover from an injury sustained on an artificial pitch compared to a comparative 30 on grass. In the 2016/17 season injuries on grass pitches were recorded at a rate of 89.6 per 1000 hours, compared to 95 per 1000 hours on artificial pitches. Statistically, it is the knee, ankle and hip that are most likely to be injured on an artificial pitch, indicating greater strain placed upon the joints.
Responding to these findings, the chief executive of the Rugby Players Association, Damian Hopely stated, “just looking at some of the lacerations, the skin burns, I think the majority of our players don’t like the plastic pitches.”
Player welfare is, supposedly, at the forefront of the RFU’s mind, and so surely, given this torrent of protest, they are to act forcefully against artificial pitches? Not so, indeed, Nigel Melville of the RFU suggested that any directive had to come from World Rugby, and that the RFU would not intervene without such an instruction.
An RFU press release last year appeared relatively blasé about the threat of injury, instead emphasising the capacity of artificial pitches to increase playing time season round. It is beyond refute that in bitter winters artificial pitches have the ability to allow competition where otherwise there would have been none, with the RFU suggesting this amounted to between 1,500 and 2,000 additional hours per season.
However, whilst the world governing body for football, FIFA, continues to insist the injury risks mean artificial pitches are not viable in the long term, there has been no sign of action from World Rugby. Is the risk to player welfare worth ensuring games are played? World Rugby’s inaction suggests they think so. Games played in the snow, at Allianz Park and Scotstoun in the Champions Cup for instance, make dramatic viewing on the television screen, but the price cannot be greater injury rates, that is a betrayal of player’s interests.
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Written by Joe Ronan