New technology is not necessarily good for rugby


I had my dad over for a visit last weekend – hadn’t seen him since last October – and you won’t be surprised to hear that a proportion of our weekend was spent indulging in and discussing sport.

We watched a couple of rugby matches with our focus on the role of the TMO (third match official), and this exercise brought the same observations to him than it did to me following this column’s discussion with Nigel Owens a few weeks ago.

In short, again, the TMO’s increased involvement have made rugby’s match referees more hesitant to make authoritative calls on the field as they see them. When they blow the kick-off whistle, they fully know that they are covered by the TMO should they make the wrong decisions, and that the pressure on them is greatly relieved. But every time they cover their uncertain tracks with a call to the TMO, the game gets a knock. It is now becoming a stop-start circus in danger of being ruined for everyone.

Developing technology, as applied in rugby, has two other aspects to it that affects the sport. The first concerns dietary supplements and the second has to do with the latest trends in pitches, or the so-called 4G pitch technology.

Rugby unions apply a ‘food first’ approach as the foundation of every athlete’s diet. Eating a variety of healthy foods is recommended for right balance and the amount of nutrients to support optimal performance.

But supplementation can be of benefit to players as a convenient extra source of nutrition and when it comes to rugby, Whey Protein, Casein Protein, Creatine and Caffeine are backed by the most evidence to support performance in team sports.

We know that there are any number players who have taken ‘supplements’ to another level with the use of performance-enhancing drugs over the last few decades. While those caught doing so have suffered fines, suspensions and perhaps a degree of humiliation, the use of illegal substances remains a factor.

I don’t really want to explore the subject at this juncture, but I’ve always held the view that the authorities should either crack down on the abusers with massive penalties or permanent bannings, or open the use of steroidal performance-enhancers to everyone – something which carries with it a natural disadvantage for those not willing or not inclined to use these drugs.

When I look at the size of certain players today, I keep wondering if they managed to achieve their massive bulk with weight training, Protein and Creatine only. I am pretty sure this is a shared observation, but let’s leave the issue aside for now.

Next, the subject of artificial pitches, where we were first introduced to 2G, then 3G and now 4G rugby pitches. One of the advantages of the artificial surface is that it brings consistency. The pitch simply never changes. It doesn’t get soft when there’s been a lot of rain. It doesn’t get harder and dusty if there hasn’t been enough rain. The grass never dies, so you don’t get bald or muddy patches mixed in with the grass. If a section does get damaged, it is easily replaced. The surface stays the same from match to match, practice to practice, and from one section of the field to another.

Most of all, 4G pitches are relatively inexpensive to maintain and there is no need for an expert groundsman and a supporting team of workers, which suits rugby clubs because it goes straight to the bottom line – healthier balance sheets!

The problem is, however, that the texture of the surface makes playing on 4G pitches much rougher on bones, tendons, and joints. Unlike basketball shoes or other shoes meant for hard floors, rugby boots are not designed with much cushioning at all. The constant jarring on these surfaces goes right into the players’ bodies.

Another factor is the abrasive nature of the artificial grass – the lack of give in the surface really lets the grass rip in and players have reported losing chunks of skin. This explains the much higher injury rate on 4G pitches. When it doesn’t cause injury, it creates heightened fatigue. It’s common for players to not feel right in training for several days after a game on a 4G pitch.

The RFU (the English union) studied injuries in the English Premiership league over the 2016/2017 season. The professional clubs in this league have various types of pitches. At the time, only three of the pitches were 4G. Yet the 4G pitches had an injury rate of 129 injuries per 1,000 hours versus a figure of 89.6 per 1,000 hours on grass.

Now, a few years later, more clubs have switched to 4G and they seem to have little regard for injuries. I am close to the coalface due to my association with my son and dozens of other high-profile players and I can say without a doubt that injuries are on the increase as a result of 4G-pitches. In speaking to doctors and sports injury therapists I hear exactly this – playing on 4G surfaces has resulted in more injuries.

Not much is being done about addressing the issue at the moment. I am not aware of additional studies or workshops about 4G pitches. But more frequent injuries will force more attention to what is happening and perhaps this is one of those matters that will have to play itself out in harshness to a stage of players’ revolt. If I was a player, I’d be refusing to play on them!

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