Pitches must pass approval by leading rugby governing bodies. In England, the RFU and RPA oversee the approval process, assessing a surface’s suitability and impact on player welfare.
Ever since RFU approved the use of artificial ground types in professional rugby, debate has subtly raged across the community over its suitability. Players, pundits, and fans are locked in dispute when weighing up the pros and cons of playing on 3G turfs.
The Pros and Cons
So, let’s break it down objectively. They’re proven to be durable year-round for multi-use (rugby, football, entertainment events, etc.), as well as being low maintenance for groundskeepers.
On the other hand, 3G pitches are expensive to install. Moreover, they throw up injury concerns – specifically, friction burns and impact damage. As outlined by many pros, the common carpet-like burns that chew up flesh poses legitimate cause for concern.
Internal damage to muscles and ligaments is thought to be more common on firm artificial pitches with less give. Not ideal for excessive side-steppers.
Player’s For and Against
Luke Edwards, Development Manager at SIS Pitches, told Rugby World in 2019
“the surface will perform consistently throughout the entire season; traction, shock absorption and head impact criterion will be the same all year, whatever the weather.”
Seems like an obvious stance from a business perspective.
His view is valid – 3G pitches have been proven to provide consistent usability whatever the weather and are low maintenance. Proponents argue the financial benefits of providing clubs and communities with pitches with more year-round availability due to their ability to withstand the elements and drainage systems.
But many professional players strongly disapprove of 3G regardless. Chiefs, England, and Lions winger Jack Nowell claims 4G pitches are “horrendous”.
Speaking on RugbyPass’ Offload podcast, he outlined personal struggles with patellar tendonitis in his youth, as well as feeling sore during midweek training sessions following weekend matches due to the turf’s firmness.
But it’s the abrasive element causing the most concern. Players regularly vent their frustration with artificial grounds on social media and share images of their injuries.
Candid loosehead Joe Marler concurs; he tweeted a simple statement last year: “Ban 4G pitches”.
Nowell and his teammate Henry Slade shared their support, while ex-Olympic swimmer Sharron Davies claimed her son’s knees were being torn to bits as a result of playing on artificial surfaces.
Does it affect gameplay style?
Data gathered from 288 top-flight games over the 2017/18 season by StatsPerform suggests a marginal tendency for players to keep the ball away from contact during matches played on five artificial pitches.
Some say synthetic pitches produce a quicker brand of rugby. We’re inclined to agree, purely based on a logical assumption that shorter-bladed plastic turf allows players to run faster. Think of 3G as an athletics track when compared to the average natural grass pitch.
Best of both worlds
Maybe there’s a mediator in the madness. Cue the ‘hybrid’ pitch as a compromising contender. Made of 60% natural grass and 40% synthetic blades, these pitches make for an ideal middle ground, offering organic feel with ultimate durability.
Nowell concedes hybrid pitches are ideal.
“If you put a grass or Desso [hybrid turf brand] pitch next to a 4G one, you’re choosing Desso all day.”
Currently, rugby governing bodies only recognise hybrid and 3G pitches (with rubber crumb infill) as suitable for the three rugby codes.
Pitches branded as 4G are known as such purely for marketing purposes. They differ from 3G as they lack infill and are yet to be approved by governing bodies. That makes Marler’s tweet technically inaccurate – he’d play on 3G pitches. (Not that we’d be so pedantic and correct him on it to his face.)
Although the playing properties are rigorously tested by the RFU for safety and performance measures, opinions remain divided.
Will Synthetic Surfaces Last in Rugby?
Replicating perfect natural grass is the goal. And to be fair, synthetic turf technology has come a long way in a short timeframe.
Now well into its third generation (hence the term ‘3G’), manufacturers are continuously developing innovative solutions to improve pitch performance and player safety.
With enough lobbying from those inside the industry with support from public campaigning, it’s feasible artificial turfs could be outlawed – at least in the professional game.
A complete 3G ban for rugby is highly unlikely, however. Companies and communities around the world have heavily invested in the turf revolution and the infrastructure is customary now. Plus, it would be a difficult PR move for governing bodies to reverse their approval stance.
As players, it looks as though we’ll just have to lump it, and deal with the grazes and strains for the foreseeable future. In October 2021, World Rugby announced that wearing tights or leggings will be permitted for match use, to the dismay of old-fashioned rugby purists.
When playing on artificial grass, you should make sure to mitigate injuries with the right gear. Choose from our range of Firm Ground boots and Compression Base Layers to protect your skin from that pesky rubber crumb.
Which side of the turf war are you on? Let us know by leaving a comment below!
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