Exeter’s turf chiefs

Alice Northropin Rugby

ExeterChiefs Adrian&Max
Alice Northrop gets just the tiniest bit excited as she takes the opportunity to visit one of her old university haunts - Sandy Park - ahead of their first Rugby World Cup fixture.

Groundsmen Adrian Witton and Max Sandford calm her down and tell her what it has been like for them both in the run up to the Tonga versus Namibia game

I can't quite explain how excited I was when I was given my visitor's pass at the reception of Sandy Park. Visiting grounds is definitely one of the favourite aspects of my job, but this was even more special. I hadn't been to watch a game at the home of the Chiefs for about three years but, before then, during my time at the University of Exeter and beyond, the lads and I had been to every game that our student loans could afford, following the rise of the club from Championship to Premiership.

The crowds that I was used to seeing outside the stadium were non-existent today. In their place were RFU vans, multiple people giving orders through headpieces, and a lot of different projects being undertaken at once. Adrian Witton and Max Sandford came to meet me looking calm and collected however, and walked me round to the only area where people were not already engaged in meetings: their tool and machinery shed.

The pitch was looking great, even though they told me that it hadn't had anything done to it since the friendly they had played on Saturday, three days before. A year or so old Desso pitch, it has had one full season already, and is coping well so far in its second. I ask whether they have had any concerns with it, "Not really," Adrian tells me. "With a Desso pitch you don't get too much damage to it, it drains really well. You need a good fertiliser regime to keep some kind of nutrient in it, but we don't divot the pitch halfway through the game or anything."

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So, how has the prep been coming along? "Yeah, it's all on track at the moment," they tell me calmly. "For us, it's only just started really, the first day of the Rugby World Cup. We've been in Chiefs mode up until today."

They aren't feeling any pressure from the RFU either, having passed the stringent test criteria set by a group of agronomists who visit all the stadiums and facilities involved in this year's World Cup. "They haven't come in and said that you have to do this, or you need to do that. It's just more advisory and just so that you are in the right parameters," Adrian says. "It took them a long time to do it all. The kit they had was amazing." They tested for drainage, hardness, size of pitch, general look of the pitch, signs of disease, length of grass, as well as taking soil samples and testing root length, root density and nutrient retention.

As well as the height of cut, which should be between 28-40mm (Sandy Park's pitch is 37mm), there are stipulations on the way in which the pitch should be cut. The patterns and the lines have to be the same for all venues. But again, Adrian and Max aren't worried about that because "funnily enough, it's very much the same as what we already do!" The only real difference, says Max, is that the normal pitch is usually a little bit bigger on the dead balls.

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It seems that they have it all under control, and with their move from Championship to Premiership in 2010, you can see why: "We've got a lot busier," Adrian comments, "I've been here eight years now and we were in the Championship when I first came. Average crowds were probably 3,500-4000, now we are upwards of 10,000."

The original grandstand has had two wings added, and they have made the terraces twice the size since I was last there. The sudden increase in pressure from being under the scrutiny of the media is also something that they have dealt with before: "Everybody expects it to look absolutely spot on all the time, so there's more pressure. As soon as somebody thinks that it is looking a little bit yellow, they will let you know." But this doesn't faze them, "It's a global audience now rather than just a national audience, but with regards to doing the pitch you still want it to look as good as it can."

Max comments that the new Desso pitch has been a big learning curve for them both. With a 95% sand base, and only 5% soil, nutrient retention is "pretty much nil".

Adrian has used a lot of natural soil biology in the last couple of years, rather than trying to use too many chemicals on the pitch: "We have been trying to get the roots the best that we can get them because that's where the strength comes from. Yes, it's great when the grass is looking nice and green, but it comes from the roots in the first place. We try to get as much retention of nutrients in the roots as possible." The natural soil biology that they have been using, such as compost teas and worm casts, are what Adrian says has contained the fusarium that they have been experiencing on the pitch recently.

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It seems to be working, as the artificial fertiliser that has been used on the pitch this year is about 30% less than last year: "Some people are for it, some people aren't. You either believe it or you don't. We use it and we get on quite well with it. It has also cut down our fertiliser use a bit. With the cost of it nowadays, you've kind of got to look at it like that."

Although, down in Exeter, they are lucky with the slightly higher temperatures, the wind that they get up at the stadium is something that has to be kept in mind. Being so high up and exposed, as well as being near to the coast, the salty wind from the sea affects the tip of the grass, stunting the growth of the leaf: "We had it on our old pitch and we still have it slightly on this pitch, although it hasn't been as prominent on this one. I think probably because our feeding regime is a lot higher, so it's kind of knocked that out of it."

Neither Adrian nor Max trained in groundsmanship or turf but, as Adrian says, "it's a bit sad but, if you've got a love of grass, you've got a love of grass." Adrian, a printer all his life, started looking after the grounds of his local cricket club as a hobby twenty-five years ago. He started at Sandy Park eight years ago when the previous groundsman left. "Luckily, my friend was a director of the club and I had been here a few times just helping out now and again. Then, when the old groundsman left, it gave me a chance to take over. And that's it really. It's gone from strength to strength."

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Max, a joiner by trade, has been at Sandy Park for six years, and takes care of the maintenance side of things. "We sort of separate our jobs to an extent. Adrian does the grounds as he enjoys it and knows what he is doing, and I tend to pick up the maintenance side. So dealing with the contractor or, if not, doing it myself. Whatever is necessary. We work as a good team."

The pedestrian machinery that they both prefer makes pitch maintenance a two-man job now, says Adrian. "It's a big job. We've got two spreaders, two Honda rotaries, and we've just got two new Dennis G860 cylinder mowers. Hopefully, that will be a little bit better for two of us, rather than a tractor or a ride-on. They're better for the grass and allow for better presentation."

Mentioning the two new Dennis G860s, due to arrive later that day, have the effect of producing the biggest grin that I have seen from Adrian. "Can't beat a brand new piece of kit!" They've been after them for about a year, and I am guessing that the World Cup has given somebody up at the top the push to grant their wishes. Not that they have to worry too much about budgets, as it seems like they are quite well looked after in that respect.

Max talks to me about how much more they have learnt by using pedestrian machinery, as opposed to the ride-on equipment that they were used to. "When you are doing it by hand, you see a lot more, you learn a lot more by doing it. You're walking at a slower pace, you're watching where you're going. It probably gives you a quicker reaction time to deal with a problem when it comes about."

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They buy their machinery from a longstanding club sponsor, Radmore & Tucker, and have always used the same consultant for the pitch, Tim Wakeham, previously a sales rep. Max says, "He's got to know the pitch as well as we have and so you sort of work as a team and you agree things. He's our supplier of fertiliser, so we go on his knowledge, as well as what we know here."

The teamwork seems to be working, as they tell me that with trying the natural biology, combined with sticking to what they know works, the pitch is stable and doesn't fluctuate too much.

What is great to hear is that the players also appreciate the work that Adrian and Max are doing, not something you hear from every groundsman. "The players will come and have a word with you. They all really love the pitch as well," Max tells me. "They can't give you enough credit really. Rob Baxter as well, right at the top of the management. There's a lot to be said for that, isn't there?"

There is a good balance, it seems, between what the players need and what Max and Adrian need. They tell me that the players will move around the pitch to help them and save the surface, and that they won't work on it if it conflicts with the players.

Ironically, Adrian and Max have been enjoying a brief respite of late as a result of the World Cup, as the players are not allowed on it to train. Usually, the pitch is used every day. "If they've got a game Saturday, they'll have Sunday off, then they'll be back in training Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, then Thursday's off, then back on it on Friday. So it's pretty never ending really. As you would know, during the winter it's pretty tough to grow grass, especially with about fifty eighteen stone blokes running around on it!"

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So, what will be the focus for the two Devonian lads until the first game on the 29th September, I ask them? "Two or three days before the game, we will be on the pitch a lot more doing a lot more to it. Now we've got a window where there's nobody on it training, we can do more."

Keeping the colour is of big importance for the media coverage and Joe Public, and they will try to cut the grass every day if possible, weather depending. Then there is the 'Captain's Run' to contend with the day before the match, where both teams have a training session led by the Captain. "Our work will start after that to get our pitch up to scratch ready for match day," Max says, "then there is a pressure, because you could be working into the evening and, if the weather is against you, it's not very nice either!"

Coming to the end of my time there, I ask them whether they are any more nervous having talked about it for a while. "Not at the moment, but we've still got a few days to go yet. I am sure that next weekend, when it is getting a little bit closer…" Max says, "it's hard work being on your feet all day long, but I suppose that comes with the love of the job, doesn't it?"

I tell Adrian I haven't heard anybody say they hate it yet ... "Come back in the middle of January, and it might be different!"

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