Does rugby need mud?

What’s more important in sport, innovation or tradition? Progress or sentiment?

Today Saracens took on Exeter Chiefs in the first rugby premiership game to be played on their new plastic pitch. The Allianz arena contains a 4G surface that is designed to stand up to 30 toothless men simultaneously driving each other into the ground, as well as the British weather that has a history of turning grass pitches into abysmal quagmires.

Last weekend England travelled to Dublin to play Ireland in the 6 Nations. It rained. It rained before kick-off, it poured during the first half, it bucketed during half time and it lashed during the second half. Needless to say, this affected the pitch and therefore the standard of rugby on display (it ended 6-12 with all points coming from penalties).

David Flatman, former prop for England and Bath described the Aviva stadium in his column in Sport magazine, as “more farmland than fairway”. Yet he went on to praise the wondrous mud-lashed winter rugby for all its squelchy glory,

“Rugby at this time of year is grim. The ball is sopping wet and covered in sludge, therefore wide passes are ill-advised, the ground is ploughed up by the gorillas up front, so those who once skated across the pitch are reduced to a plod; and any aesthetically pleasing footwork or snazzy sidesteps are washed away with the rain”

“So why do we need this stodgy, rugby-by-darkness in our lives? Because it’s totally wonderful, that’s why….I am also convinced that no bloke can call himself a bloke until he’s had a good scrap in the mud”.

Designers can make plastic look like grass but they can’t recreate the mud that Flatman speaks of. Is the joy of of sliding over the line for a try, or tackling your teammate because you can’t distinguish the kits or digging molehills out of your ears for hours afterwards resigned to the good old days? Will mock pitches improve the game as the ball sound be easier to handle and ground less slippery under foot? Or will a lack of grass-stained shirts make the line-up of super toned players mean a trip to the rugby looks more like watching a crowded athletics meet? This doesn’t conjuror up images akin to man versus man were adjectivessuch as dogfight, battlefield or trenches appropriately tell the story of the game. Ex-pro Flatman is adamant, “we need mud in our game”.

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