Exclusive: Grass-roots sport in chaos as heatwave leaves pitches too dangerous to play on

·8-min read
Grass-roots sport in chaos as heatwave leaves pitches too dangerous to play on - GEOFF ROBINSON PHOTOGRAPHY
Grass-roots sport in chaos as heatwave leaves pitches too dangerous to play on - GEOFF ROBINSON PHOTOGRAPHY

Grass-roots sport faces being thrown into chaos by an unprecedented heatwave that has rendered many playing fields too dangerous to use.

The new amateur rugby season is under particular threat, with the Rugby Football Union ready to implement emergency measures including more non-contact training and a greater use of plastic pitches.

But many pre-season fixtures are already being cancelled due to rock-hard surfaces, and fears are growing that leagues in the south-east - the worst affected by the hot weather - are now set to be heavily delayed.

Parched pitches are also a growing concern in other sports, including football and cricket, as health experts warn players are at serious risk of injury.

John Ashton, the former director of public health for the north-west, warned sport is entering "uncharted territory" in terms of safety risks, with head injuries and concussions of particular concern.

As a result, brain injury charity Headway has urged all sports authorities to issue "urgent guidance to grassroots clubs to prevent an increase in concussions as a result of playing on hard pitches".

"Many concussions are sustained from head-on-head collisions, but the harder the ground, the more likely it is that a concussion will occur in a fall or tackle that results in the head hitting the pitch," said Luke Griggs, the charity's chief executive.

Progressive Rugby, the lobby group demanding better protections for players, also expressed support for competitions to be delayed to allow pitches to soften.

Rugby chiefs told Telegraph Sport that they are "monitoring the situation closely" as reports emerged of clubs being forced to postpone matches scheduled for this weekend with the heatwave forecast to extend until at least Sunday. and little rain forecast in the south for the rest of the month.

The RFU's director of rugby development Steve Grainger said: "The RFU is very concerned about the impact of the heat and lack of rain on natural turf pitches at community clubs, which could affect players returning to contact rugby in September.

"We are looking at scenarios to help which include maximising use of artificial pitches [including the 28 owned and operated by the RFU] and promoting greater use of non-contact forms of the game."

Chaos in community sport is in sharp contrast with conditions enjoyed at the elite end of the game. Several Premier League clubs told Telegraph Sport they have been continuing to water their pitches and training facilities uninterrupted as there has been no instruction from the top tier to stop doing so.

However, governing bodies across football, rugby and cricket said there were "huge geographical variations" facing the grassroots.

The football pitches on Hackney Marshes are parched - PA
The football pitches on Hackney Marshes are parched - PA
Hayes CC groundsman John Clapshoe has a tough job in difficult conditions - GETTY IMAGES
Hayes CC groundsman John Clapshoe has a tough job in difficult conditions - GETTY IMAGES

The south-east appears to be suffering significantly more than the rest of the country with the state of pitches. The Surrey Rugby Reserve League - which is not run by the RFU - is already believed to have postponed the start of its campaign to October.

In football, meanwhile, the local Kent FA has urged clubs to cut down water use where possible, but there are no known leagues who are considering postponements as it stands.

Andrea McMahon, of the Ground Management Association, insisted the sustained period of hot weather is not yet "causing us a problem". However, she added: "We do need to have a really good eye on this and really have some advice to hand."

Q&A: The heatwave's impact on grass-roots sport explained

By Tom Morgan and Ben Rumsby

With temperatures again in the mid 30Cs this week, grass-roots sport - and particularly the football and rugby calendar - is entering what public health experts describe as "uncharted territory". Here Telegraph Sport attempts to answer some of the key questions:

Why is the heatwave dangerous for grass-roots sport?

While most professional clubs benefit from stadium sprinkler systems, council and amateur clubs' playing fields are rock hard across England and Wales. Cash-strapped clubs can take measures - such as increasing water breaks - to mitigate the impact of the heat on players, but there is little that can be done about the playing surfaces.

"When you see these terrible fights in town and somebody gets punched and they end up dead, it’s never the punch that kills them, it’s the head on the ground," said Tom Morris, of Progressive Rugby, a lobby group for player safety. "Obviously, that is a concern if you’re effectively playing on a concrete base."

Luke Griggs, chief executive of Headway – the brain injury association - adds: "Many concussions are sustained from head-on-head collisions, but the harder the ground, the more likely it is that a concussion will occur in a fall or tackle that results in the head hitting the pitch.

"Without the luxury of sprinkler systems used in elite-level sport, many community pitches across the UK will be as hard as concrete at present."

Which sports are most affected?

Rugby - and to a lesser extent football - appear to be facing major disruption in the coming weeks, particularly in the south-east. Some competitions meet with the Rugby Football Union on Monday to discuss their options.

"Many clubs are keen to play so if delays happen, they may be match by match," a source close to talks said. " Any delay would have to go through governance approval which would take a few days. The thing to stress is the regional variation... therefore a blanket delay isn't the right approach."

A Football Association source added that "we are monitoring the situation closely". However, Kenny Saunders, of the ‘Save Grass Roots’ football campaign, expressed concern around low-level players being less able to deal with the heat than professionals.

"With the pitches being rock hard, if they fall over and they jump to head a ball and they land awkwardly, they’re going to potentially break or dislocate something," he said. "The ones playing on artificial pitches, they’re playing in twice the heat. Once the sun beams down on the bits of rubber, it’s immense heat on there."

What solutions are being proposed?

Clubs are also encouraged to consider the use of crash mats in some circumstances to ensure players are getting adequate full contact preparation.

Teams are also developing strategies to deal with heat exhaustion. Many teams are reducing physically-intense training sessions to 15 minutes stints,  with increased water breaks. However, there is some pragmatism in sport, that there is little that can be done about the state of the pitches.

"Grassroots football is not like the Premier League, where it’s watered two, three or four times a day," said Saunders. "We have to put up with what we’ve got. Councils just haven’t got the money to maintain grassroots football pitches."

An artificial cricket pitch on Hackney Marshes is the only patch of green to be seen - PA
An artificial cricket pitch on Hackney Marshes is the only patch of green to be seen - PA

Can sports clubs water their pitches even if there are hosepipe bans?

Sports successfully lobbied for an exemption from hosepipes bans during a drought ten years ago. For professional sport, "Temporary Use" restrictions, which  include hosepipe bans, do not apply at all.

For the recreational game, peak-hour bans can apply, but there are exemptions for watering playing surfaces for safety. In Kent, for example, the local FA has issued instructions for clubs telling them that the "watering of grass or artificial surfaces may continue for sport or recreation (on the active strip/ playing area – not the whole grounds) during off-peak hours".

Irrigation systems, sprinklers or hosepipes can continue to be used if the water source is from a private borehole, artificial lake, a well, or rainwater harvested. However, in most cases, grass-root pitches do not have sprinkler systems.

How long could this go on for?

Blistering temperatures will start tailing off at the weekend, but the Met Office has predicted hot, humid, and stormy weather in the latter half of August.

Could grass-roots seasons be delayed until the heatwave is over?

Some rugby competitions in the south-east look set to be delayed. However, the general guidance is for clubs to consider the state of pitches on a game-by-game basis.

As far as both football and rugby are concerned, pitches should be assessed by the referee in the same way as it would when matches are called off due to a frozen pitch.

Dr John Ashton, the former director of public health for the north-west, said sport was right to resist blanket postponements, avoiding the danger of "falling into becoming a nanny state" on the issue.

"This weather does put us in  uncharted territory for grass-roots sport, but I am cautious about being too prescriptive in this case," said Ashton, who this week receives Bahrain's 'medal for medical merit' over his assistance during Covid-19.