Gloucester Rugby boss considers artificial pitch for Kingsholm
IF ARTIFICIAL pitches turn out to be rugby’s future, then Ryan Walkinshaw will sanction a synthetic surface at Kingsholm.
Gloucester’s executive chairman admits to a watching brief as the Premiership adapts to its first non-grass playing pitch.
Regular agitators for change Saracens have already installed a synthetic pitch at their new Allianz Park ground.
The Cherry and Whites will play at the Fezheads’ new Barnet home for the first time on Sunday (kick-off 2pm), as they seek to hit back after their underwhelming 22-16 defeat to Sale.
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Gloucester chief Walkinshaw will not touch the Kingsholm turf for several years – assessing player safety and building the £500,000-plus funds required for any potential change.
But if the league’s general trend sways away from grass, Walkinshaw admits Gloucester will probably follow suit.
Cardiff Blues now have a fully artificial pitch, and the Ospreys’ Liberty Stadium field in Swansea is a mix of grass and synthetic.
Walkinshaw said he appreciates the “beauty” of a mudbath – but revealed at a recent Premiership Rugby meeting that the league’s chairmen held a vote that was overwhelmingly positive.
“It’s obviously something we’re going to consider at some point,” explained the Gloucester boss.
“It doesn’t mean we’re going to do it, but we’ll look at the commercial value of putting one of those pitches in.
“It is a considerable investment, so we would have to raise the money and it would take a couple of years to do that.
“We spend right to the salary cap and we’ve invested very heavily in backroom staff over the last 12 months, but we’re still recording profit.
“Obviously we can’t put more money directly into the team, but we’ve got a long list of things that we want to look at investing in.
“Eventually we’ll have a look at artificial pitches, but in the same way that every single club will.
“I understand fully the traditions of rugby and the merits of the old-fashioned mudbath, but it could come to a point where six clubs have artificial pitches and six grass, and you’ll be at a competitive disadvantage.”
Walkinshaw believes Gloucester’s Nigel Davies’ revolution could well benefit in the long-term from a change to a man-made pitch – aimed at increasing foot-speed and trickery for the Cherry and Whites’ pacy backline.
He continued: “It is a difficult one, but I think the style of game we want to play under Nigel, that could suit us quite well.
“We will eventually look at it, but it’s certainly not an immediate priority.
“From the last PRL meeting with the chairmen, we did discuss it and it was surprising how many people put their hands up saying they would actually quite like to be able to implement an artificial pitch.
“What it’s going to come down to before any decisions are made, is the safety of the players, that’s got to come first.
“That’s got to be the absolute focus.
“Even if it’s commercially exciting, it’s most certainly something we would not do if we had reservations about player safety.
“But in another three to four years we don’t know what the technology will be then. So the technology could well keep improving steadily. If it does help the brand of rugby, if it stops the huge amount of collapsing scrums, if it boosts exciting, attacking rugby and a faster game, then it’s an attractive version of the sport.
“There’s an infamous beauty to games played in quagmires in the middle of winter, that’s one of the beauties of our sport.
“It would be fantastic to hold on to that if we can.
“But sport is changing all the time, times and demographics are changing.
“I’m not saying it’s a no, but it’s something we’re going to have to look at.
“We’ve got to take all these things into account, keep a very balanced view of it all.
“And we’ve got to look at it while respecting what the traditions of the sport are.
“If the sport is going that way, and it does look like it is, then we will just have to follow suit, accept that, and look at the positives rather than just some of the historic negatives.
“For every horrible match you’ve had in mud that’s been a great game, slowed everyone down and been intriguing to see teams handle the conditions and play a different style, maybe you’ll end up with beautiful rugby, great handling and will allow everyone to show what they can do.
“We just have to wait and see what happens, we’re not going to jump at
it. We’ll see how Saracens go, look at the injury rate, then the commercial, take into account the fans’ view and reassess.”