Sydney pitch quality more than just surface tension

apaway Roar Guru

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    Alex Wilkinson of Sydney FC. (AAP Image/Tony McDonough)

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    It’s March. That means it is time for the annual hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing on the state of stadium playing surfaces now that the rugby codes have commenced their seasons and football’s run with good surfaces has come to another end.

    This is especially the case in Sydney where the Sydney Football (Allianz) Stadium becomes home ground for Super Rugby’s Waratahs, NRL’s Sydney Roosters, and A-League’s Sydney FC, on top of a venue for various international games, tournaments and concerts.

    It happens every year, the powers-that-be know it’s going to happen, and not a thing is done to try and mitigate the damage, both real and aesthetic, as the A-League heads towards its finals series.

    Let’s get two inarguable facts out of the way. Rugby union destroys playing surfaces. Contested scrums and rolling rucks chew up the turf as surely as a stump-jump plough.

    I once sat in silent disbelief at a local council meeting when a soccer-hating council groundsman tried to tell a forum that round-ball footballers could only wear sneakers on “his” grounds during pre-season because “those new fandangled cleat boots” did more damage to the grass than anything the local rugby clubs did. Some attitudes are hard to change.

    Ireland and Scotland pack down a rugby union scrum

    The second inarguable fact is that neither league or union are too fussed about the state of a playing surface. Sure, they’d prefer a bowling green with no divots but it isn’t essential and that’s why neither code ever calls off a game.

    Given these facts, football is up against it. Paul Okon slammed the state of the SFS pitch after last week’s Sydney FC-Central Coast game. Graeme Arnold was a little more circumspect but is clearly unimpressed with the playing conditions at the Sky Blues’ home ground. Just this week, National Team boss Ange Postecoglou labelled the surface a disgrace ahead of the Socceroos crucial World Cup Qualifier against United Arab Emirates.

    General consensus is that the SFS playing surface was severely chopped up by the recent international Rugby Sevens tournament which ran over an entire weekend. Given the tournament attracted big crowds and supposedly generous revenue to the Sports Ground Trust, it’s ridiculous for football fans to become agitated by the existence of what amounted to a weekend of rugby fancy dress. Commercial interests are not concerned with how “serious” the show is, just how much it makes.

    However, cross-code fixture-making could be influenced and I’m beginning to wonder whether FFA or A-League ever talks to the rugby codes about what happens in Sydney in March, April and May.

    I’m deliberately focusing on Sydney here, while acknowledging that the same problem occurs in Brisbane but appears not to be an issue in Melbourne where AAMI Park magically produces a damn good surface for all, despite hosting 4 major sporting teams in the same time period.

    As a case in point, was it really necessary for the Sydney Roosters to play the Canterbury Bulldogs in an NRL game on a Thursday night last week, 24 hours before the Sydney FC-Mariners game? Was there not one other NRL game that round that could have filled the TV schedule requirements for Thursday night, such as Wests Tigers-Penrith Panthers or St George-Illawarra-Parramatta Eels?

    Would the Roosters really have been disadvantaged by playing on Saturday rather than Thursday? Did A-League organisers even attempt to negotiate such a thing? I know the NRL gives clubs who host Thursday night games a TV revenue incentive payment due to a perceived drop-off in attendance so I don’t think any of the clubs would have been financially handicapped if they’d played on Thursday.

    Perhaps my naivety is getting the better of me, and the Roosters wanted to play on a Thursday for some reason (TV money aside) to which I’m not aware. And yes, I realise this sounds a little like football trying to get everything it wants, but in the case of stadium surfaces, it’s something football needs more than the other two codes.

    It’s not like Sydney FC are poor cousins in the stadium-sharing family. In the last two seasons, they have averaged 6,000 more fans per home game than the Roosters. Trying to get average home attendances for the Waratahs is a little like trying to get confirmation of alien activity at Roswell, but one source – Australian Football Code Crowds 2014 – had the Super Rugby franchise on par with Sydney FC’s figures for that year.

    I’m not suggesting Sydney FC or FFA go all ‘bully-boy’ just because crowd figures tell us that football draws just as many fans to the SFS as the other two codes. However, surely they could sit down with officials of the other codes along with the SCG/Stadium Trust and try to negotiate an equitable arrangement for the final months of their season.

    I know, working harmoniously, hand-in-hand doesn’t seem to be the preferred business model for rival sports codes these days but to my mind, three happy tenants is better than two and I doubt scheduling fixtures with the playing surface in mind is going to seriously disadvantage the rugby codes.

    The other looming, unthinkably horrid scenario occurs in May. The Waratahs are due to play the Blues on May sixth at the SFS. The A-League grand final is scheduled for May seventh. Given current form, Sydney FC would appear to be a very strong favourite to win the rights to host the championship decider, which would then be played less than 24 hours after the surface is ploughed into a potato field.

    Alex Wilkinson of Sydney FC

    At least there is ten days grace between the ground hosting anything prior to the March 28 WCQ. To have the A-League’s biggest game of the season held a day after a Super Rugby game is clearly unacceptable.

    Of course, FFA don’t know for sure until a week prior as their altered finals format has painted them into a corner regarding their grand final venue, given the game could go to three possible venues. Maybe in this case, FFA need to bite the turf bullet and move the grand final date, as I doubt they’ll be able to get the Waratahs to swap their game day to Sunday just for FFA to make a temporary booking on the Saturday (the only other “sensible” option in an ideal world). But then again, have they even asked?

    Various football fans are calling for A-League clubs and football to build their own “boutique” stadiums. It’s a lovely thought, but much like world peace, Donald Trump’s impeachment or rolling green fields with sugar plum fairies, it remains extremely aspirational in our current market economy.

    In the meantime, perhaps we need to be negotiating more than agitating in order to get a better surface deal for the sport.