However quickly Johann van Graan’s Munster players find their groove in tonight’s pre-season bow against Declan Kidney’s London Irish, the surface beneath them will take a while longer.
No sweat though. Munster Rugby’s new €500,000 all-weather surface at Musgrave Park is there for the long haul and will prove a game-changer for the sport in the province, believes their head of finance and operations Philip Quinn.
“We’ve always struggled with the fact there’s been no artificial surface suitable for rugby in the south of the province. So every winter, we struggled for matches, whether it be schools or a club game. We were so reliant on the weather and out with the begging bowl to Cork Con, Highfield etc.
We played 55 games at Musgrave Park last year — we want to double and treble that and we want to attract additional high-profile games to Cork, We are working on that with the IRFU.
The Munster players get their own first feel of the new surface when they jog out for tonight’s warm-up, and if it’s a proud night for the Tralee-based company which installed the new generation surface, it could also be a nervous one, like a Broadway producer waiting for Frank Rich’sreview.
Actually, not so much.
PST Sport chief Colin Teahon and his business development manager Kieran Donaghy — you may have heard of him — know already what first night reviews will be like.
“Where the pitch is playing at now is nowhere near where it will be at when it beds in fully,” Donaghy explained, “so I know already what the players will think Friday night. The pitch will require three months for all that rubber, which is sitting on top of the ground now, to be compacted down by pure playing.
When it firms up you will have a truer reflection of how the pitch will play. At the moment it might play like a grass equivalent of a pitch in March or April, whereas we want it to get to how a pitch would be in May or June.
"And it will get to that — just firmed up nicely but not rock hard like we’ve been seeing around the place this summer. It’s too fresh at the moment and the players might even feel a bit heavy legged on Saturday. I will be there Friday night but I’d be more interested in the feedback in three months’ time.”
Teahon, who’s own pitch to Munster Rugby for the contract was sweaty-handed due to his family’s passion for the brand, also draws on some certainties to support his claim that the 8,000-capacity Musgrave Park now houses “the best 3G rugby pitch in the world”.
“Pitch technology is advancing all the time but the only way you get the equivalent of real grass is having no infill (sand and rubber) in it. These systems are being tested but the player performance on that surface is really poor.
You are never going to beat a natural grass pitch, but it’s just not practical having only grass pitches in this country where you want clubs, communities and pro outfits to use it all year round. In 20 years’ time, all the community pitches in Britain, for instance, will be 3G.
“But I can say this with certainty: The carpet (or artificial grass) that’s at Musgrave Park now is the most advanced in the market anywhere in the world — and there’s a whole load of testing to support that. Musgrave Park now has the best 3G rugby pitch in the world. Will it play as the best rugby pitch Friday night? Not yet, but it will be. At half-time the surface is going to be quite black because the new rubber is coming up, but there will be someone brushing it — I just haven’t told Kieran it’s him yet!”
Philip Quinn explained that Munster coach van Graan has been constantly in the loop on the surface and is happy it’s compatible with the style of rugby Munster is be looking to develop.
The biggest target for us,” he explained, “is that we get more games here at a higher quality so in the middle of winter you are not playing in a mud bath. If we want to develop schools’ rugby, clubs and improve skills across the province, you want a surface that will deliver that.
“The greatest beneficiaries would arguably be the younger generation and amateur players in the south of the province. We would be looking to play 100-150 games here this season, compared to 50 last year on the grass surface. Double-headers are another element we could not have considered heretofore.”
It’s phase one of a two-part refurb of Musgrave Park: A new gym facility is in the planning stage too.
Teahon’s PST Sport is now a serious player in the synthetic pitch business. They secured the contract to lay the training surfaces at Chelsea’s Cobham training base in London and were down to the final three tenders for the FA’s centre of excellence at St George’s Park in Burton-Upon-Trent (the FA’s head groundsman there is a guest at Musgrave Park tonight). Their next significant project is the main pitch at St Vincent’s GAA club in Dublin.
“From a family and emotional point of view, the Munster contract was as big as it gets for us. We are a Tralee-based company, my father is the operations director, we are all dyed-in-the-wool Munster fans, but he’s that little bit more. We had an initial meeting with Munster and we said this cannot be something that is already in existence — we need to come back and really wow Munster. This pitch will probably be used 30 hours a week, so we needed something durable but with a soft feel to it.”
Their manufacturers, the World Rugby-preferred, CCGrass devised a two-fibre carpet that will be especially beneficial to players at scrum and ruck time in terms of stability and give. “The sub-base,” he explains, “features about an inch of kiln dried, really fine sand, beneath that is around 8,000 tons of stone, with the evenness of a snooker table. There are 900 million fibres on the pitch and the artificial grass weighs around 17 tons with around 500 tons of infill gone into it.”
Instead of the industry-standard eight-year warranty, Muzzer’s new surface has a 12-year warranty.
“There were a couple of hundred tests done by World Rugby. There are key criteria like ball bounce, ball rebound, rotational resistance in the stud etc, but the big one is the head injury criterion (HIC) which is essentially the height it is safe for a player to land from, head first: 1.3m is the standard, but this pitch hit 1.6m.”
Beyond all that technospeak is the fact that the pitch looks ripe for sexy rugby. Where a young winger can, as Donaghy might put it, “shake and bake”, even in the depths of December.
“You come into the stadium now and see that pitch as a teenager... it’s like when I used go into Killarney as a young lad for an U16 final, and you look at the pictures on the walls. Munster Rugby has it done all that and done it right. For the young player in the province, you are planting the seed and the dream of playing for Munster. If you are going from 50 to 150 games a year at Musgrave Park, you have more than twice the number of youngsters having the dream, that’s a numerical fact.
“Can you quantify the value of that excitement? You will have young fellas bouncing into that dressing room thinking they are the best winger in the world and not thinking ‘I hate playing in the muck and shit’.”