Is rugby ready to run dry?

Devin Hermanus

Capetonians must have a tough time listening to local radio these days, with all the public service adverts warning them to save water or run the risk of Day Zero.

Club rugby players probably tune out altogether, following the news that WP Rugby has postponed the start of the season due to the drought in the Western Cape, and the state of grass fields in the province paints a grim picture.

Stormers fans will try and find solace in attending their side’s opening game of the 2018 Super Rugby campaign, against the Jaguares at Newlands. But, with Cape Town’s water crisis serving as a wake-up call to a potential national disaster, are professional rugby sides in South Africa prepared to cope with a waterless future?

Innovative irrigation systems and smarter grounds-keeping help maintain the necessary standards for top-level pitches worldwide, yet the rigours of modern sport – and the amount of matches played – can be taxing for teams and stadia in even the most developed and climate-friendly countries.

Heavy rainfall and torrential snow have regularly hampered European rugby matches due to muddy or sodden fields, with atrocious conditions underfoot diminishing the game as a spectacle.

For a long time, debate existed on the value of artificial turf in rugby, with concerns surrounding the set-pieces, safety and performance on what can be an unforgiving and “unnatural” surface. Then, in 2013, Saracens became the first top-flight side to install a synthetic pitch at their Allianz Park stadium.

In the first 32 games at Sarries’ home, they won 29 times, scored 72 tries and claimed back-to-back English and European titles in 2014-15/2015-16 and 2015-16/2016-17 respectively.

Saracens began something of a trend, with the Cardiff Blues and Glasgow Warriors installing similar pitches one year later. Last season, a third of Premiership clubs played their home matches on plastic or semi-artificial pitches, while Murrayfield and Twickenham have ‘Desso’ surfaces – natural grassroots woven in and around artificial anchors.

Most UK-based players have spoken positively of 4G pitches with former Springbok hooker and Saracens stalwart Schalk Brits praising its consistency, which allows for expansive rugby all-year round.

The initial cost of a rugby/football-sized artificial turf is approximately R10 million, and given the running costs of a 4G pitch like Allianz Park is £18 000 (R295 000) per year, compared to £85 000 (R1.392m) for the upkeep of a grass pitch, it makes financial sense too.

SA franchises and unions should engage with Saracens and their like-minded rivals, as well as ‘Saffers’ in the UK – or even the NFL – on the benefits and logistics of installing artificial turf.

Why not install and trial one or two AG fields in the Varsity Cup? Universities and schools would be amenable to the construction or renovation of multi-purpose sports grounds, with the possible assistance of SA Rugby and its role-players. Such fields could serve as training pitches for Super Rugby and provincial sides, and help conserve the lifespan of actual grass fields.

SA rugby must take a bold step into an artificial terrain, while there’s still grass growing under our feet.

Devin Hermanus works in the SA media industry, graduated without a diploma, has a healthy appetite for junk food, and can’t recall ever having to resign on national television. Follow him on Twitter: @DevinMyles11

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- Devin Hermanus

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  • Peter

    Brilliant article Devin Hermanus….a long overdue initiative in my opinion….if Sarries have it for 4 years already…why are SA unions…especially WP and EP not already investing in the cost saving water saving plan? Defies logic!

    • Devin Hermanus

      Thanks, happy to have sown a seed of fore-planning. It’s a sad state of affairs in SA rugby; a lack of innovation may very well bring about its extinction.

  • Chris Mouton

    Hmm, it depends on the turf texture. Grass burns can become quite painful on artificial turf…

    • Sharky

      You’re thinking of hockey AtroTurf. The newer artificial turfs used in rugby an NFL aren’t that nasty at all – at least not any worse than playing on a bone-dry field on a winter’s day day in Bloem.

      • Devin Hermanus

        Spot on, on both accounts. Artificial turf for rugby and football/soccer has longer blades of ‘grass’, which is layered over rubberised shock-pads.

        • Chris Mouton

          Thanks for clearing that up. I’m a little bit behind the times! I think the unions should invest immediately. The Newlands grass was being mauled on Saturday. It makes sense to get a more homegenous and water-saving turf.

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