Rugby League World Cup - High profile; high demands

Laurence Gale MScin Rugby

The Rugby League World Cup provided some exciting viewing, with capacity crowds at many of the host stadiums and television audiences surpassing expectations.

Our editor caught up with two head groundsmen from the sport's north west stronghold to find out how they went about preparing for their respective high profile televised games

We certainly had a feast of rugby at the end of 2013, hosting both the 14th Rugby League World Cup Finals and the Rugby Union series of autumn internationals, featuring some of the best teams in the world

Both codes commanded massive support and extensive TV coverage. Having played rugby union and then spent most of my adult life as a follower, I was delighted and more than a little intrigued at the prospect of watching my first ever rugby league international match, held at Leigh Sports Village in November.

It was one of the group games of the World Cup Finals, with Tonga taking on the Cook Islands.

The invitation came from Head Groundsman, Keith Porter, and included being involved in the pre-match build-up. It was too good an opportunity to miss.

However, on my way to Leigh I decided to call in to see Mel Jones at the Halliwell Jones Stadium, home to the Warrington Wolves. The venue had hosted one of the opening games of the Finals the previous week when New Zealand beat Samoa 42 -24.

My last visit to see Mel was about nine years ago, just after he had taken over at the club.

At that time, Mel was experiencing drainage problems with a new pitch, largely due to insufficient investment in a proper drainage system. However, the problem was rectified following the installation of some primary and secondary drainage in 2007.

The Rugby League seasons starts at the end of December and runs to October. November is not the ideal time for pitch renovations, so Mel tries to fit in some of this work towards the end of the playing season, in between fixtures, when the weather is better. Often, it is limited to light scarification, aeration and seeding.

However, this year, once Mel found out the stadium was to host two of the World Cup matches, he went about planning a more vigorous renovation programme, rescheduling some league matches to give himself a four weeks window.

The pitch was koroed off and re-seeded by Mallinsons. Within four days, the seed had germinated and, a little over a fortnight later, it was being cut. Mel's feeding regime centres around a granular and liquid programme ensuring there is a balance of root and shoot growth, whilst using a turf hardener iron sulphate for colour in the winter months. He also acquired a set of grow lights, courtesy of one of the club directors. They were of great benefit in helping maintain grass cover in some of the problem areas.

For the World Cup matches, Mel was intending to keep to his usual pre-match routine. However, having found out there was going to be a lot of activity on the pitch, up to several hundred people performing, including dancers and children playing small sided games, he increased his aeration programme, particularly across the centre of the pitch, at the same time applying some additional straight sand to these areas. He also raised the height of cut to 55mm.

The match passed without incident and, more importantly, the pitch stood up to all the activity and a hard fought game between two of the most physical teams in the competition. A great night of rugby, with Mel looking forward to his next World Cup match, Samoa versus Fiji, two weeks later.

KeithPorter Try!
I left Mel just after lunch to take the short ten mile journey to Leigh Sports Village, and met up with Keith and his staff who were putting the final pitch preparations together for that evening's match, scheduled for a 8.00pm kick off.

Keith was in discussion with the event organisers regarding the arrangements for the pre-match entertainment; very similar to what Mel had to deal with - lots of activity in terms of flag bearers, dancers, parades and small sided games, plus the thirty minute team warm-ups.

On the pitch, at the time, were two members of the grounds staff, finishing off the linemarking. Within an hour, all the lines had been completed and all that was left to do was to put out the post protectors and corner flags - and then keeping unauthorised people off the pitch!

LSV Rain
Keith had been keeping an eye on the weather forecast, with heavy rain due in the early part of the day and clearing up prior to the match. As a result, the pitch mowing had taken place the previous night, immediately after Tonga and the Cook Islands allotted thirty minute training sessions. He'd even taken the precaution of vertidraining the pitch the previous week, which meant it was able to cope with the 50mm of rain in three days prior to matchday.

The pitch looked immaculate, especially considering it had staged over thirty rugby league matches and even more training sessions since April.

In September, Keith had managed to fit in a light scarification and overseed of the pitch, plus he undertook some aeration work using the new Air 2G2 from Will Kidd at Fine Turf Services, Cheshire.

The south end of Leigh Sports Village Stadium suffers from shading and poor drainage, creating problems with algae. A trial with the Air 2G2 machine on the area in the summer resulted in the algae being dispersed and a significant improvement in root growth.

Being aware of the need for the stadium to be at its best for the World Cup match, the club supported Keith's decision to have the whole pitch aerated with the machine. This was done straight after the Kingstone Press 2013 Championship Final on the 29th September, following three back to back games in one day.

The air injection was carried out to a depth of 175mm at one metre spacings; the work took nine hours at a cost of around £1000. In Keith's opinion, this was money well spent as there has been enhanced grass cover and a better recovery rate after games.

By now, it was late afternoon and still raining, the pitch was ready, so all that was left to do was monitor the pre-match entertainment rehearsals.

Members of the armed services marched with the national flags of the teams taking part. However, at times, they were walking along the newly painted lines, something Keith was not too pleased about!

With ninety minutes to go before kick-off, the final jobs were to secure the walkways and remove any machinery and equipment to a compound outside the stadium. We then went back into the mess room to have some pre-match tea, with Keith kindly buying me a fish and chips supper.

Gates were open around 6.30pm, with an anticipated full house of 10,000 plus spectators; only the second time that the stadium had entertained a capacity audience.

Watching Haka
A pre-kick-off Haka from both teams set the scene for a very entertaining evening of rugby league. The game got off to a great start with both teams preparing to run, resulting in a try apiece after twenty minutes. At half time, it was 18-10 to Tonga, with the final score being 22-16. An important win for Tonga but, after their surprise defeat by Scotland in their first group game and a subsequent victory over Italy in their final match, it wasn't enough to see them through to the quarter finals.

With a two hour drive home, I was able to reflect on a very enjoyable and memorable first ever rugby league game for me - featuring two hakas, some fantastic tries, a few game-changing errors and an incredibly moving joint prayer at the end.

Certainly a night, and a day, to remember. And my thanks to both Keith and Mel, and their teams, for their hospitality and for allowing me to be involved in their important World Cup preparations.

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