The world-famous Millennium Stadium in Cardiff could soon boast an artificial heart, and the Welsh Rugby Union has turned to Hong Kong as it looks at the feasibility of replacing its hallowed turf with an all-weather, year-round artificial surface.
'We are very, very seriously considering an artificial pitch for the Millennium Stadium,' said David Pickering, WRU chairman, who arrived this weekend on a fact-finding mission. Both the two main pitches used by Hong Kong rugby are artificial strips - King's Park, which is also the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union's headquarters, and Hong Kong Football Club.
'Hong Kong is one of the leaders in the world when it comes to playing rugby on an artificial strip and I have come here to look first-hand at the possibility of having a similar surface,' said Pickering, the former Llanelli flanker who captained Wales between 1983 and 1987.
Pickering is on his way to New Zealand for next week's International Rugby Board council meeting in Auckland. He made a stopover in Hong Kong this weekend to witness a rugby match being played on an artificial pitch, and watched yesterday's First Division league encounter between DeA Tigers and CBRE Club at King's Park.
'One of the biggest concerns for the Welsh Rugby Union is the cost of maintaining the Millennium Stadium pitch. We have to replace the turf three or four times a year and it costs us GBP220,000 (HK$3.4 million) each time we do it. The cost option is in favour of us moving towards an artificial pitch,' Pickering said.
The 74,500-seater Millennium Stadium - which will be the venue of some games in this year's Rugby World Cup - is run by a subsidiary company owned by the Welsh Rugby Union. It was built in 1999 for the Rugby World Cup final, on the site of the old National Stadium, in Cardiff Arms Park. The pitch is laid on 7,400 pallets which can be moved so the stadium can be used for concerts and other events. But a heavy maintenance bill has forced the WRU to look at change.
'Not only would it mean a unique playing surface, but the advantages are many. We could use it for almost 12 to 15 hours daily, and it would give the opportunity for more community rugby. With an artificial surface, we can offer young children the chance to play on an iconic ground. What an inspiration that would be,' Pickering said.
While rugby purists back in Wales might rebel at the thought of the heart of their sacred ground being torn up and replaced by an artificial pitch, there is unlikely to be any opposition from the IRB to holding top-grade international rugby on such a surface.
'I believe Hong Kong has already hosted international rugby matches sanctioned by the IRB. I think in the future, there will be more mainstream and tier one rugby internationals being played on artificial pitches. I think this is the way ahead in the future,' added Pickering.
Hong Kong has hosted a number of internationals against Asian teams at King's Park and Football Club. According to Allan Payne, HKRFU executive director, the running costs of maintaining the King's Park pitch have come down drastically since it went artificial in 2004.
'Our maintenance cost annually is minimal. All we have to do is once every two years relay the rubber and this costs us about HK$50,000. Apart from this the pitch looks after itself,' Payne said.
Payne said the HKRFU has asked the Hong Kong Government to change three more pitches run by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department at Happy Valley, Tai Hang Tung and So Kon Po into artificial tracks. If this is done, almost 90 per cent of Hong Kong rugby pitches would be artificial.
'This is the way forward in Asia and I think we want to follow at the Millennium Stadium. I believe we are a year away from this becoming a possibility,' added Pickering.