herald

Wednesday 26 June 2019

Pace-setters and plastic pitches go hand-in-hand

Simon Zebo
Simon Zebo

The public are told ad nauseum how this can be a game of fine margins, even inches.

When all the mud has been spattered, the hits blasted out, the kicks and tries and points totalled after six rounds of the Champions Cup, the winners and losers will be clearly defined.

At the moment, Pool 3 leaders Saracens and Pool 4 pace-setters Racing 92 head the five first seeds on 14 points from three wins boosted by two bonus-points.

Both clubs operate on 4G artificial surfaces, in layman's terms plastic pitches.

There are five clubs in the European Cup who play on plastic pitches, three of them, Saracens, Glasgow and Cardiff, in Pool 3.

The basic premise of adopting to the surface is making matches increasingly immune to the influence of weather.

As a spectacle, the quicker surface leads to quicker matches, more attractive entertainment, more tries, more points, more of everything that sells the game to a wider audience, save for the injury interests of the players.

Saracens' two bonus points have come at home to Lyon and Cardiff for a combined total of a whopping 80 points. They did eke out a low-scoring 13-3 win on Glasgow's 4G grass at Scotstoun.

This had everything to do with their approach to that game rather than the surface it was played on.

They took a brutal, confrontational attitude to prevent the Warriors from getting into their free-flowing style.

Racing, the home of Simon Zebo (inset), struggled to a one-point win at Scarlets (14-13) before turning on the style for 44 points against Ulster in round two and 36 against Leicester on Sunday for a combined total of 80 in the unique setting that is the U-Arena.

Racing are matching the English champions point-for-point, albeit two of their last three matches will come away from Paris on the more unkind ground at Ulster's Kingspan and The Tigers' Welford Road on Sunday.

The only other club with a 4G surface are the surprise packet Newcastle Falcons, last season's Premiership semi-finalists.

They mastered Montpellier 23-20 in their only home match from the opening three rounds.

In fairness, their unpredictable impact has been rooted in a shock 26-25 win at Toulon's Stade Felix Mayol.

The fact remains they are in a strong position in Pool 5, three points behind Edinburgh with two home matches to come in a revenge mission against Edinburgh next Sunday and three-time champions Toulon in the final round in mid-January.

It would come as a shock were Saracens to conclude the Pool phase with anything other than a first seed given how they are slated to tackle Cardiff, who are out of the competition, on Saturday.

The route to the quarter-finals is not as straight forward for Racing as Leicester will not lie down on Sunday and Ulster are still in the running for the quarter-finals.

Still, from three out of five Pools with clubs working on an artificial surface, it looks extremely likely Saracens and Racing will make it two out of three Pool winners.

HALFWAY RANKINGS

(1) Saracens* (2) Racing 92* (3) Toulouse

(4) Munster (5) Edinburgh (6) Leinster

(7) Glasgow* (8) Ulster

(*Clubs with 4G pitches)

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