Munster have never played a European game on an artificial surface before, but Saracens installed a synthetic pitch when they moved to Allianz Park from Vicarage Road in January 2013.
It has helped them to an enviable home record, too, with last season’s Heineken Cup and Aviva Premiership runners-up winning 29 of the 32 games they have hosted since their move.
But, while Saracens’ players, notably Alex Goode, have told Munster they cannot use the pitch as an excuse if they lose the winner-takes-all European Rugby Champions Cup clash tomorrow, the province have talked all week about the potential impact of the pitch – particularly when it comes to the bounce of the ball or whether it encourages running rugby.
Yet George Mullan, chief executive of SIS Pitches, the Irish company who installed the pitch, says Munster need not worry – particularly as they have been training on the artificial surface at the University of Limerick.
But he does admit anecdotal evidence suggests the ball is in play longer, running rugby is more likely and that scrums are more stable than on grass pitches. Indeed, after a year Saracens were averaging 35.8 points per game at home, compared to just over 20 in their final full Premiership season at Vicarage Road.
“We didn’t think that was going to happen, but in hindsight if you have a stable, consistent surface and you don’t have mud on the ball then it is more suited to a running game,” says Mullan, whose company have installed pitches at the Bernabeu, Nou Camp and many other stadia.
“Talking to Saracens they feel it is a faster game. Newcastle Falcons (where SIS installed the same artificial surface last summer) will tell you their experience is that it is faster, and the ball seems to be in play a little longer. That is anecdotal, but I have also heard that scrums tend to be a bit more stable.
“But I know Munster have been training in Limerick on a similar pitch, and it’s a good one. That one will perform pretty much the same way the Saracens one will perform.”
Munster are concerned, though. In light of that, it is hardly surprising that Saracens believe they are making a mountain out of a rubber-crumb molehill.
“Anyone who tries to make it into something and talks about the pitch gets themselves into trouble and they worry,” said full-back Alex Goode, one of the players who, alongside wings Chris Ashton and David Strettle, has benefited most from the new surface.
“Just play rugby. You don’t reinvent the wheel as it’s a different pitch. Just play the way you play every week and play better than the opposition.
“People make a lot out of it. Rugby is a simple game. Win the gainline, you go forwards, the other team goes backwards and nine times out of ten you’ll win.”
England No.8 Billy Vunipola agrees: “When most teams play on an artificial pitch they find it quicker as there is no effect of the mud or water, getting dragged down and feeling like you’re running on sand,” he said.
“It will give more back so you feel like you’re running more but you’re not.”
No-one is questioning the safety of the pitch any more, though. When Saracens introduced the surface every game was watched for facial abrasions or other unusual injuries. So far they have found none. The surface was developed by SIS eight years ago for use in Newcastle Falcons’ training facility, but as an artificial turf has to meet rigorous safety standards.
“If I build a grass pitch like the one we did at the Bernabeu I don’t have to meet any requirements,” says Mullan.
“A synthetic pitch, because it is new and novel, is tested to the nth degree, and has to be tested every two years.
“In April or May, August or September, grass pitches are rock hard. They would never pass the same tests that a synthetic pitch has to go through in those months.”
The idea of synthetic pitches brings back memories of QPR’s horrendous pitch at Loftus Road, a turf which was ‘a hockey pitch’ according to Sligo-man Mullan.
Allianz Park’s in-fill consists of sand topped up with rubber, while the fibres used are both particularly soft and have an oil coating on them.
“They are very soft, very durable and won’t give off burns,” says Mullan.
Props like the stability under foot in the scrum, and backs enjoy the opportunity it gives them to play running rugby.
With stadiums such as Twickenham, the Millenium Stadium and Murrayfield all bringing in hybrid surfaces, the days of a grass-only pitch may not be here for long.
But there can be no excuses for Munster tomorrow.