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Grazed knees and egos as the iPitch gets a frosty reception

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George Riley George Riley | 09:54 UK time, Thursday, 9 February 2012

Just 80 minutes into the new season, Widnes Vikings' ground-breaking use of an artificial pitch is already a major talking point.

Wakefield's victory on the "iPitch" preceded a furious outburst from full-back Richie Mathers, who questioned the safety of the surface by posting photos of his shredded elbows and knees on Twitter. The try-scorer was subsequently told to "man up" by Widnes coach Denis Betts.

On a weekend severely hit by the freezing conditions, the iPitch looked fantastic. But is it safe? I spoke to Mathers after training this week - Wakefield had to train at Sheffield United because their own pitch was frozen - and then spent the afternoon on the pitch at Widnes with director of rugby Paul Cullen.

Mathers was actually very positive about some aspects of the pitch when he called me, keen to clarify his comments, which have infuriated Widnes. He was wary of being branded a whinger or of his comments being perceived as a personal attack on Betts and Widnes.

"I have a lot of time for Denis and worked with him in the England Academy," said Mathers.

"I absolutely do not want to fall out with anyone and am only speaking out in a genuine fear for safety and for the good of the game. I have not made my injuries up and in the 200 Super League games I have played the state my body was in on Friday night genuinely shocked me.

"Why should we just 'man up' and accept it? I'm not inclined to be outspoken but should we have to go to Widnes and accept we'll lose skin on elbows and knees?"

I have no doubt Mathers's fears are as genuine as his infected elbow, for which he is now taking antibiotics. He hopes to be fit to play this weekend but will do so strapped and padded up.

He is also very keen to praise the surface as outstanding under foot.

"It is a great, firm consistent surface that is good for ball-handling," he points out.

Yet Mathers's injuries were severe enough for him to be unable to train this week until Wednesday.

"The entire team swim on Saturday was cancelled as we were all badly cut," he says. "At half-time the medical staff spent the first five minutes smearing vaseline on knees and elbows to stop the bleeding."

The artificial pitch at Widnes caused particular problems for Wakefield full-back Richie Mathers. Photo: PA

Widnes responded to Mathers' comments with a statement blaming the freezing weather, rather than the pitch. The former Leeds, Wigan and Warrington full-back, on loan at the Wildcats from Castleford, is more than happy if this explanation is proved correct.

"I genuinely hope that is the reason and if so I hold my hands up," he said.

Cullen is adamant the weather was to blame.

"It hurt because it was minus seven degrees," he said, arguing Salford forward Matty Ashurst's knees were in a worse state after the Reds' game on the snowy grass against Castleford.

I was really impressed with my play on the iPitch. It looked and felt brilliant. Admittedly Cullen never grounded me, but the climatic explanation seems to make sense.

Anyone who plays five-a-side football will be familiar with the soft cushioned blades of turf and layer of black rubber pellets.

These two components don't freeze, but the moisture from the air does get into the surface and freeze. A layer of frost can therefore still form and make the turf sharper than normal - hence the cuts.

There is also a "shock pad" fitted underneath specificially to counter the brutal intensity of rugby league.

Cullen tells me his veteran players Jon Clarke and Ben Cross say it's revitalised their game as they can "concentrate on handling without worrying what they are doing with their feet".

The pitch itself was Cullen's idea. His brief was to research and implement a 3G - third generation - training surface.

He spent three days at Saracens with former league legend Andy Farrell and learned the union club were planning something similar. He returned with the idea and he and chairman Steve O'Connor decided if it was good enough to train on it was good enough to play on.

(In fact, O'Connor wanted to go one step further. He wanted the pitch to be orange but decided they had enough to do in convincing the Rugby Football League to sanction the pitch in its traditional colour.)

The club and RFL are happy it is safe. Mathers sincerely hopes his concerns prove misguided but tells me several players have since phoned to ask for advice on how to deal with the surface when they play there.

Luke Dorn told me after London Broncos' defeat by St Helens on Saturday that he will play in full length skins under his kit when his side visit the Stobart Stadium. I expect more players to do the same.

For Widnes, the commercial rewards are obvious. Such is the take-up of bookings for five-a-side football and touch rugby that the club tell me they have recently had to schedule Vikings training sessions around the external bookings already in place.

They started training at 9pm on Wednesday. Other teams are also moving matches from their own frozen pitches to Widnes's all-weather surface, including Crusaders' game against Halifax on Sunday.

For the record, I left the pitch unscathed. But that's largely because Cullen's playing days, like his knees, are long gone!


  • Comment number 1.

    I imagine all players will wear full body skin suits, just incase there is an issue, that makes sense.

    However my problem is the start of superleague coinciding with the start of the six nations, RL cannot compete with the endless hype the 6n's get from the BBC and Tends to silence any noise attempted by RFL marketing.
    Time to shift it a week earlier or later.

    Engage advertising is still everywhere (post pads, boards, etc) even though they are gone, just looks amateur, sort it out RFL.

    Ps. An orange ipitch would have been better.

  • Comment number 2.

    I've played on these pitches quite a lot and i wouldnt say they were dangerous but they do cut you more than a grass pitch would. I once got a lynth gland infection from a big graze i got from a tackle on a 3G pitch. Theyre just a bit annoying because you know if you go in hard youre guna be tending cuts for the next few days, give me grass any day (provided it isnt frozen obviously). They are good pitches in general. I would also agree that they can get frozen as well and are definatelty more likely to graze you up when its sub zero degrees.

    Also would have enjoyed an orange pitch.

  • Comment number 3.

    this summer, we took the new Hungarian RL side to Belgrade to play against their district side and they play on one of these pitches - and I believe that the majority of Serb clubs have these - it was a way of insuring that there were pitches available and managed by the local councils - even if they did have to share them with the local football teams.

    In reality, they are a great way of making sure that there are pitches available in any weather - which when it is 40 degrees in the summer and -20 in the winter is ideal and prevents things like the grass dying in the extremes.

    more of them in the UK would make securing playable pitches, ground shares and less negative comments about rugby players damaging football turf less likely.

    do remember some carpet burns but nothing too serious

  • Comment number 4.

    I went the game on Friday, it was so cold, i wouldn't have been suprised if players wore 'skins' due to the cold alone! As for the game, the last 15-20 minutes killed us (Widnes) we will blame the cold! Well done Wakey, decent game tho'!

  • Comment number 5.

    'The pitch itself was Cullen's idea. His brief was to research and implement a 3G - third generation - training surface.'

    Did anyone cross The Pond and ask teams in the NFL ? American footballers are said to dislike artificial pitches because of the abrasiveness and lack of 'give' in the turf. And they are covered from head to toe with padding

  • Comment number 6.

    I've not played on one of these pitches so cannot really comment on how they perform or feel.

    Having said that I have played on grass pitches when it has been very cold and come off after 80mins covered in ice burns, cuts and grazes that I would not have picked up on a warm soft pitch - so I am inclined to agree with Widnes (so far) and I feel it is unfair to judge it after 1 performance in very extreme conditions. Time will tell.

    On a lighter note, I would've loved to have seen an orange pitch!

  • Comment number 7.

    Fuzzy Duck et al.

    They've been going colourful in the US for a while.

    Boise State play on a blue/orange pitch

    and Eastern Washington went for bright red

  • Comment number 8.

    My local rugby union team has a 3G pitch as a first team pitch and quality is really good meaning that the home games don't get cancelled whatever the weather.

  • Comment number 9.

    Complaints about Widnes 3g surface? has anyone complained about the Artificial surface at the Galpharm Stadium (Huddersfield)?

  • Comment number 10.

    The Galpharm pitch is Desso Grassmaster and is 97% natural grass with only 3% plastic fibres to support it. Also used at Emirates

  • Comment number 11.

    We'll just have to wait for the weather to improve before we find out if it's the pitch or the weather that causes the injuries, I certainly hope it's the weather as I see these artificial pitches as the future of all sports.
    They cost a pittance to maintain, unlike grass, have consistent give all over the pitch, unlike even the best grass pitches on earth and most importantly, they offer a surface that can be used many times every day of the year, which can only be good for the finances of sports clubs and youth development and that's without even thinking about the sheer numbers of people that will have more access to top quality facilities.

  • Comment number 12.

    I play in goal on a 3G surface every week, i used to play in shorts but the grazes you get really add up and become painful, that said, with skins the impact is fine and that seems to be the way to go...

  • Comment number 13.

    I played a full rugby union game in Spain on an Ipitch, suffered no injuries if anything it was safer due to the consistent surface. In this instance you have to blame the weather, the new 3G pitches are safe and nothing like the old artificial pitches which everyone still fears about and it is what people automatically think about when someone says artificial. Technology has moved on and definitely for the better, all year round durability and more useable than a real pitch. Also you receive cuts on rock hard surfaces in summer playing rugby, so a frozen pitch in winter I am sure the same happens. It is a positive step forward which allows more use of a games area for a community not just widness.

  • Comment number 14.

    Two comments: Firstly, how can people call these all-weather pitches if they cut people to pieces when it's cold? That kind of defeats the object, surely!

    Secondly, I played on these pitches every week for around 3 or 4 years (football, not rugby) and they initially grazed and then cut open my knee, elbow etc with every slide tackle. This is something that I could try to accomodate in football without too much negative impact by avoiding slide tackles and the like, but this is impossible in rugby. After I had opened up cuts on my knees each week, it meant the skin only ever had chance to thinly heal over and then opened up straight away the following week. I would hate to be the home team, playing on a pitch like this most weeks! It may also make it incredibly difficult against some of the better footballing teams in the league if it aids the team with ball in hand!

  • Comment number 15.

    If there's a problem then put skins on. Mathers won't play on this pitch again this season so he doesn't need to worry. Move on and let's talk about all the good things the I pitch brings to RL.

  • Comment number 16.

    Re Huddsjow comment #10
    Good answer, thanks. That explains why they re-laid the turf last year?

  • Comment number 17.

    I used to play (football) on the old type Astroturf and couldn't believe the difference when I played on one of these 3G pitches. It literally is like playing on the real stuff. I was that impressed I bought something similar to replace my lawn from Yes the odd scuff and scrape is going to happen but that is also the case with hard summer pitches. Having said that, I'm not sure I want a 17 stone forward tackling me on artificial grass.

    Might be some need for those old elbow and knee pads from my skateboarding days.

  • Comment number 18.

    I was at Widnes for the game and I'm sure the freakish cold that night was a factor. I don't object to Mathers' comments. He's been level headed and reasonable and the safety of the players is paramount. But the pitch needs to be given a few more games and in better weather too. Skins might be the way to go.

    However, I was interested to see in the Superbowl that few players seemed to wear any elbow protection on the indoor pitch in Indianapolis. That suggests to me that the extreme cold was a big factor at Widnes.

    Beginning of February is too early for the season to start. I'd rather see a later start and push the end of season deeper into autumn.

  • Comment number 19.

    i think we will have to see how the pitch behaves in different temperatures.if players are still getting badly cut knees and elbows what will the solution be, as the rfl sanctioned it. the kc stadium has the same pitch as huddersfield.


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