OptaPro applied data to better understand and analyse how artificial playing surfaces can affect a team’s playing style. This latest article builds on this work and focuses on Newcastle Falcons.
Analysing data over two competitions for a whole season gives a good overall view of the effect surface types have on what happens on the pitch but it is also beneficial to assess an individual club who normally play on an artificial surface to understand whether their specific matches are affected by the pitch type.
Newcastle Falcons are one of the three Premiership sides to host matches on an artificial pitch after installing it ahead of the 2014/15 season. At the time, Falcons’ Director of Rugby Dean Richards stated in a BBC article that it would “undoubtedly produce a more free-flowing entertaining style”.
As teams generally produce better results at home, the data below once again shows match averages for both teams combined rather than just Newcastle’s tallies to avoid any boost in the numbers that may come from home advantage (although Newcastle did also play away on two artificial pitches and at ‘home’ on a hybrid grass pitch at St James’ Park).
Despite not showing a huge difference in scoring patterns – points scored decreased on artificial pitches while tries increased – it is evident that the ‘free-flowing entertaining style’ does seem to exist, with metres, clean breaks, defenders beaten, offloads and passes all seeing increases of >10%. In fact, offloads saw an almost 25% increase while clean breaks increased by just under one fifth.
The apparent willingness to keep ball in hand and play more expansive rugby has meant that ball in play time in Newcastle matches has increased by almost three full minutes when playing on a fully artificial surface.
To put this in context, the average ball in play time during the Premiership regular season in 2017/18 was 38 minutes 18 seconds, with the league average being higher than that of the PRO14, TOP 14, Champions Cup and Super Rugby – in fact, the 41m 40s of action witnessed when Newcastle play on an artificial surface was almost 10 minutes more than the average Super Rugby game in the 2018 regular season (32m 08s).
Match Averages in Newcastle Falcons 2017/18 Premiership Fixtures
From a spectator perspective, the use of an artificial pitch has certainly had an impact on Newcastle Falcons’ matches, with the rugby served up on grass arguably being less exciting from an attacking viewpoint.
However, when taking into account all games in the Premiership and PRO14 in 2017/18 it appears that artificial grass alone doesn’t have a huge impact on style as it remains fairly similar to the data recorded on hybrid pitches, suggesting that clubs’ playing styles are generally unaffected as long as the surface remains consistent and firm underfoot.