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Frank Hadden interview. Part III: Artificial surfaces preferable to pitch battles

In the third and final part of his assessment of what needs to be done to save Scottish international rugby, Frank Hadden concentrates on facilities and the need for a joined-up approach.

The all-weather pitch laid down behind Murrayfield has been an asset. Picture: Gordon Terris
The all-weather pitch laid down behind Murrayfield has been an asset. Picture: Gordon Terris

While there is always discussion in Scotland about the difficulty generated by playing outdoor sports in hostile weather, the former national coach - drawing on 40 years' coaching experience during which he has worked all over the world - believes the solution lies more in improving what is underfoot than what is overhead.

He believes, though, that there is little point in addressing any one of his themes of the past three days - the need to set the right priorities for Scotland's professional teams and re-structure them accordingly; the introduction of a properly competitive junior set-up; improved facilities - in isolation.

WHY BETTER FACILITIES ARE NECESSARY

Since I came back from working in Asia as a consultant for HSBC, I have coached everywhere in Scotland, from Currie to Caithness and from Boroughmuir to Bannockburn at schools, clubs, you name it. If someone asks me I say 'no trouble at all'. I don't take a penny for it - sometimes maybe a round of golf - I go there and it means you see the facilities people are using, and they are just appalling.

COMPARISONS WITH OTHER COUNTRIES

When I was coaching in Australia, it rained once during the rugby season. It was a downpour in midweek and the pitch was still firm at the weekend. On those surfaces, you can do all sorts of things with your feet and your hands that you can't do in our conditions.

By contrast, on the dry day in a Scottish winter, the ground will still be soggy which also means the ball will be wet. For me that is a critical element in the breadth of the skill-set of your international players.

There are other issues emerging now. When they play Super Rugby in the evening in the Southern Hemisphere, for example, they have to deal with the dew, which means a wet ball, while the wettest ball I can remember us having to deal with in international rugby was at the Millennium Stadium with the roof shut. The condensation soaked the grass because they kept the roof shut too long. Getting the surface right for practice is conducive to greater handling skill and foot movement, though.

In this country one of the things we have talked about a lot is rucking; Jim Telfer was in the vanguard and was right at that time. Now they talk about the breakdown and the clear-out, but what I would like to talk about more is the accuracy of the passing and the footwork prior to the contact which gives you the extra couple of yards which makes the clear-out a doddle.

The Irish are bloody good at that. Guys like Jamie Heaslip, Sean O'Brien and Cian Healy, their ball carriers, have all got great feet. They're not just direct runners - in Ireland [conditions] are even wetter than here - so a long time ago they started building Prunty pitches, named after a farmer in Northern Ireland. I looked into it for our country and the cost of the type of sand required was extortionate, whereas the Irish were getting cheap sand.

THE DAMASCUS MOMENT

It was 2007 that I first saw an all-weather surface that was suitable for rugby, at the Hong Kong Football Club where I was coaching the Penguins in a Tens competition. I was amazed. Japan played Hong Kong in an international on it. Then we went to the sevens on the Saturday which were played on grass and there were people slipping all over the place, whereas the standard of play on the all-weather surface had been absolutely phenomenal.

The top eight teams were mainly Kiwi players in pre-season ahead of their provincial competition and the standard of player was incredibly high. The more you go to the Southern Hemisphere, the more you realise that key to their development is first of all their junior structure, but secondly their underfoot conditions.

I've coached outside in Scotland for about 40 years and actually our overhead conditions aren't that bad, but our underfoot conditions are especially bad if you're training in the dark under floodlights. Unless you can train and practise at tempo, you can't expect suddenly to switch that on at the weekend.

We've got one [artificial pitch] at Dunbar and the back fields at Murrayfield have this sandy soil that offers fantastic conditions throughout the year, but even better than that is all-weather.

THE NEED FOR BETTER PLANNING

We built the first one at the back of Murrayfield not out of design, but because we got the funds because Murrayfield was to be used as a flood plain and the bit of ground we sold for the trams. We needed surfaces that were a bit firmer for cars to go on [when it's used as] the car park.

The Murrayfield pitch doesn't [suit training] that well because it's on a flood plain, so it actually gets frozen off but, anywhere with proper drainage, you can play [on these pitches] right throughout the winter because it doesn't matter how cold it is, the water just disappears and you have a dry ball and some lovely fresh days to play on. You can play back-to-back matches, starting at nine o'clock in the morning.

ANSWERING THE CRITICS

We've got these surfaces, but people are a bit wary about them, whereas New Zealanders, who were playing on them for the first time in Hong Kong, weren't wary about them at all and took to it immediately.

People worry about whether it will be worse for knee injuries but American Football has been using artificial surfaces for God knows how long. You get injuries on any surfaces, including grass.

From a rugby perspective you get really unusual bounces, but that makes it more exciting and it's the same as playing on hard pitches. However, the game awareness they [New Zealanders] have from their junior rugby means they instinctively know when to be in the back field to deal with that and, as a result, they are also quite comfortable under the high ball and know what to do next.

FACILITY FUNDING

I think the development officer structure is split into 12 areas. If you were to start with a priority of having one artificial pitch in each district it would provide a training centre for elite training throughout the year and a place where, in really bad weather, you can schedule matches back-to-back.

We need a plan to develop these surfaces and my suggestion would be to target about a dozen, building them one a year, that you put out to tender to the clubs and offer a grant. So it's not going to cost you £12m in total and, in any case, you do it one a year and there might be some grant-aid available. It should be a national priority rather than a rugby priority. The facilities in France are so much better because [they are a result] of government spending.

The government attitude to sport is so different. It took me a while to discover that Britain alone in the developed world spends three times more on the arts than it does on sport. It is usually the other way around, including in France where you wouldn't say they were short on the cultural side either.

The one thing the London Olympics did was to highlight the needs for improved facilities, because it's expected that we pay for these things privately, which is what our rugby clubs have to do. These are community matters and there must be half a dozen football clubs using them now as well.

WHY CHANGES TO PRO TEAMS, JUNIOR SET-UP AND FACILITIES MUST ALL BE DEALT WITH SIMULTANEOUSLY

You don't attack the thing from the bottom up or the top down; you have to be looking at it from all levels and one of the glues that will hold it all together is facilities. Yet the SRU has produced a document called The Way Forward and there are five things listed as priorities and not one of them is facilities.

It wouldn't be good for us if we only tried to fix one of these things. It would be nice to have a facilities strategy, but in isolation from a competitive junior structure that would allow us to get the full value from it we would not be maximising the opportunity to make real ground. Likewise the pro team re-structuring is integral to the junior re-structuring so that the pathway is created. It's all part of the incentive scheme.

Our coaches will get better very quickly with better facilities and a competitive structure to enthuse them.

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