There is an argument that playing on artificial pitches brings a greater risk of injury, with the surface coming under the microscope any time a player is forced off after picking up a knock. However, does the type of surface used in rugby have a direct influence on other factors in a rugby match – in particular, playing style?
A changing game
Rugby is constantly evolving, with more actions – most noticeably carries and tackles – being recorded year on year in major leagues. With this in mind, it is sensible to look at the most recent season when analysing the impact of artificial pitches to maintain a level of consistency, so the data used throughout takes into account the 288 games played out across the 2017/18 Premiership and PRO14 seasons.
In the 2017/18 season five venues with artificial pitches hosted rugby – three in the Premiership and two in the PRO14. In England’s top tier, Saracens’ Allianz Stadium, Newcastle’s Kingston Park and Worcester’s Sixways Stadium all used an artificial pitch, while in the PRO14 Glasgow and Cardiff hosted matches on artificial surfaces at their grounds, Scotstoun and Cardiff Arms Park respectively.
Despite some PRO14 sides only playing each other once and Saracens and Newcastle taking select matches to different venues, all 26 clubs within both leagues had the opportunity to play on an artificial surface last season at least once. Several sides also played on hybrid pitches, which for the first section of analysis were included with the grass pitches as these are essentially grass surfaces with artificial grass woven in to reinforce the pitch.
Assessing playing style
Assessing the match averages from artificial and grass pitches, is there any discernible change in the overall playing style between grass and artificial pitches? At a glance, the data appears to show no real significant changes in style when playing on an artificial surface compared to grass, however there are some interesting trends to note. Many of the changes are fractional, with pitch type having virtually no effect (>1% change) on kicks from hand and carries as well as success rates in the tackle, lineout and ruck.
The biggest changes in match averages came in clean breaks, which saw a 6% increase on artificial pitches, and metres gained which increased by 5%, while there were also higher rates of turnovers and penalties conceded.
It is interesting to note that while there were very marginally more carries made on artificial surfaces than on grass pitches, there were fewer tackles made per game, suggesting a desire to keep the ball away from contact, suggesting a slightly more expansive style, which fits in with the fact that a similar number of additional passes were also made on the artificial pitches.
Premiership and PRO14 – 2017/18 match averages
A higher percentage of scrums were won by the side with the feed on artificial grass, which may suggest that the slightly firmer surface made it easier to scrummage on, although perhaps interestingly there was no difference in the number of scrums being reset. 16% of all scrums had to be repeated on both surfaces, with marginally fewer resets per game on grass (2.6) compared to artificial surfaces (2.7) dispelling any notion that the artificial surface gave a better foundation at scrum time.
As there are no significant differences between all grass pitches and artificial surfaces it would be sensible to break the data down further to analyse whether the type of grass pitch shows any other trends.
Many teams, particularly in more modern venues, have adopted a hybrid pitch which – while still being viewed as grass – has artificial fibres woven in to reinforce the pitch which helps prevent it tearing up and provides a more consistent surface.
Premiership and PRO14 – 2017/18 match averages
Similar to the breakdown between all grass pitches and artificial surfaces, the biggest difference was to be seen in clean breaks and metres. Both categories saw the pure grass pitches post the lowest match average, followed by hybrid pitches with artificial pitches seeing the highest tally, with clean breaks increasing by 8% between the lowest and highest figures and metres by 7%.
Again, turnovers conceded saw an increase on the hybrid and artificial surfaces while goal kicking also improved when going from grass to hybrid to artificial – kickers perhaps benefitting from the more solid and consistent conditions underfoot.
Perhaps one of the most interesting points to note was the similarity between the hybrid and artificial surfaces, with the hybrid pitches posting results that were closer to the figures on the artificial pitches than on pure grass. One such example of this is ball in play time, which had seen a 37 second increase when comparing all grass types to artificial. However, when the grass types were separated, the difference in ball in play time between artificial and hybrid pitches was just one second, and almost a minute longer than on pure grass.
This was the case in several categories, suggesting that artificial pitches themselves do not change style of play, but more so the consistency and quality of the underfoot conditions that may come with either an artificial or hybrid pitch.
The next article will focus on Newcastle Falcons’ performances last season, exploring how pitch type as affected their style of play.