In the world of sport, we spend most of our time talking about what happens to the players but rarely to what is happening beneath the player’s feet. Looking back on old footage of rugby and soccer matches from 20 years ago or so, it wasn’t unusual to see players covered in mud and the pitches they were playing on torn up with use. However, even with rugby and soccer fixtures played in the depths of winter, this is becoming a rarer sight.
The groundsmen that are employed by stadiums across the world are obviously doing a good job, especially with the care of playing fields becoming more technical. For example, the pitch at Croke Park has a network of underground pipes connected to suction fans that force out any water. Above this network of drainage pipes, there is a heating system. Above the heating system, the grass pitch.
Another modern innovation is the artificial pitch, commonly known here in Ireland as astroturf (after the first synthetic pitch created in 1965 by Monsanto, the people that brought us Roundup).
In England in 1981, QPR was the first soccer team to install an artificial pitch, but due to complaints, they reverted to a grass pitch in 1988. I’d encourage anyone to look it up on youtube, because the effects of this sort of pitch were comical; the ball bounced as if it was made completely of rubber and players constantly lost their footing.
Recently, artificial turf is going through a bit of a rebirth, partly due to the higher-quality 3G pitches available now. Many rugby grounds across the country are now equipped with an astroturf pitch. Donnybrook Stadium received an artificial pitch in 2014, followed by Cork’s Musgrave Park in 2018. Connacht has recently finished installing one at the Sportsgrounds in Galway.
This renaissance has been followed by backlash from players, due to the unnecessary friction burns rugby players are more likely to get due to the nature of the game. Watch a game of rugby being played on a 3G pitch and you’ll see most of the players will have red knees and elbows.
From personal experience, rugby on a 3G pitch is unfortunate, but something you have to deal with. Given the choice, a match in the bog of Allen would be preferable to a match on an artificial pitch. You might drown in a bog but at least you wouldn’t have an inch-wide burn that takes over a month to heal.
Due to the lower maintenance costs of artificial playing fields, we are going to be seeing a lot more of them in the future. The GAA has even got on board, with a 3G pitch being used in its innovative Connacht Air Dome near Bekan, Co. Mayo, which demonstrates the up-side of such pitches.