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The science beneath the surface: is synthetic turf the future of rugby?

When artificial turf was first rolled out in the world of rugby, the promise was that it would help to usher in a “faster, safer, more entertaining game”. 

So do high-tech surfaces deliver on this promise? Is real grass set to become a thing of the past? We take a look…

RNT or fully synthetic: understanding the difference…

When Twickenham was hit by a deluge of 17mm of rain just two days before England’s 2015 World Cup opener, head groundsman Keith Kent remained phlegmatic. His reinforced natural turf (RNT) had coped well with atrocious conditions in the past and was up to the job of absorbing whatever was coming its way.

Sometimes referred to as a ‘hybrid surface’, the turf at Twickenham and at over 450 stadiums across the globe is essentially the halfway house between a completely natural and fully artificial pitch. It consists of millions of synthetic fibres injected into a natural grass field, causing the natural roots to intertwine with it, resulting in a stable and highly durable surface.

Synthetic (or ‘3G’) pitches, by contrast, consist entirely of polymer yarn, treated with additives for softness and player safety and designed to be low-maintenance and to withstand intensive use.

Who uses synthetic and RNT pitches?

The International Rugby Board first approved the use of artificial pitches in 2003. RNT pitches from companies such as Desso tend to be the preserve of elite level clubs and stadia. Hybrid turf is a fixture at both Twickenham and Murrayfield. Outside of rugby, Wembley Stadium, Arsenal and various NFL franchises have also taken it up.

For 3G synthetic turf, the last few years have so far seen Saracens and Newcastle Falcons and the Rugby League side, Widnes Vikings lay fully artificial pitches. It seems that lower league, semi-pro and amateur organisations are also starting to look at this technology closely. Last year for instance, London League One club, Rosslyn Park announced it was installing an artificial surface through SIS pitches and Bonar Yarns, who were also behind the new turf at Saracens’ Allianz Park.

What are the potential benefits? 

When synthetic turf pioneers, Saracens announced their shift away from grass, the hope was that it would bring about a faster, safer and more entertaining game. It’s difficult to prove conclusively that artificial turf can result in more fast-flowing rugby - although the UK’s Sports and Play Construction Association points to research suggesting that the ball tends to stay in play for longer than on natural grass. The SPCA also points to increased grip and fewer collapsed scrums.

The practical and potential costs benefits are easier to gauge. For a lower-tier club, the decision to go synthetic is a financially significant one; yet with this comes the promise of a hugely reduced maintenance bill. The SPCA refers to potential savings of £35,000 per annum on pitch upkeep.

Linked to this is the benefit of a much more hard-wearing surface that does not have to be left lying idle between training sessions and matches. For smaller clubs, not having the pitch out of bounds for long periods could open up the possibility of increased usage, better engagement with the community and new revenue streams. At Rosslyn Park for instance, the fact that the club now has up to 60 hours of playing time on its pitch per week means that it can do more to get locals directly involved in the game.

Synthetic pitches and safety: what do we know?

Artificial pitches have come a long way from the 1980s when footballers who visited QPR’s Loftus Road would very often come away complaining of carpet burns and joint ache. High-tech 3G surfaces incorporate rubber shock padding and anti-friction fibres with sand and rubber crumb, all with the purpose of ensuring player safety and comfort.

The evidence on safety is positive so far. In particular, the latest England Professional Rugby Injury Surveillance Project mirrors the findings of last year’s report: there were no differences in the levels of injury incidence and severity between Premiership matches played on synthetic surfaces compared to traditional turf.

For guidance on safeguarding measures and for comprehensive protection for your club and players, including health and safety, personal accident and career ending insurance, check out our rugby insurance solutions.