Grazed knees and egos as the iPitch gets a frosty reception
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!