It is often said that wedded couples need to put in some hard work to avoid a divorce but, when two sports clubs in Northern Ireland merged to share their grounds, it proved to be a real marriage of convenience. Now, with the honeymoon period well and truly over, Chris McCullough headed north from Belfast to find out how two distinct clubs have settled into a harmonious existence
For the past ten years, Templepatrick Cricket Club has been renting grounds at Ballyclare Rugby Club in County Antrim in a shared environment and, so far, the venture has gone without a hitch.
Thanks to two different seasons, the pitches at the club on the Doagh Road have time to recuperate somewhat from a hectic rugby season before the cricketers start their games.
There may be a short overlap between the rugby and cricket games' calendar, but with two sets of groundsmen looking after the pitches, they always receive the best attention.
Ballyclare Rugby Football Club was formed back in 1949 and currently boasts around 600 members of all ages. The club, known in its early days as The Ballyclarians, operates four senior teams, a youth section, a very strong mini rugby section as well as a disabled initiative.
Sitting amongst the idyllic thirty-eight acres of grounds is the clubhouse, which was officially opened in 1992 by Arthur Foweather MBE, the founder of The Old Ballyclarians Association.
The club is home to four full size playing pitches - the Lindsay, Coulter, Moore and Russell, plus a fully floodlit training area for rugby. An area between two of the pitches is dedicated for the cricket square, rented out and maintained by Templepatrick Cricket Club since 1996.
Ladies are also welcome at both clubs and already they play both cricket and rugby at the grounds. With this in mind, there are separate facilities in place in the clubhouse which is equipped with six male changing rooms, a private referees changing room with showering facilities, and a ladies changing area.
The Templepatrick Cricket Club was founded in 1969 and subsequently played for two years in the Boys' Brigade 20 Overs Evening Cricket League before gaining admittance to the now defunct Belfast Cricket League in 1971.
For much of its history, the club had used pitches belonging to Belfast City Council, but was fortunate enough to find a permanent home of its own in 1996 when it was invited to join up with Ballyclare Rugby Club at Cloughan Lane in Ballyclare.
The rugby season starts in August and runs through until mid-April the following year. At the same venue, the cricket season commences at the beginning of May and runs until the end of August, creating a slight overlap when the grounds are used by both clubs at the same time.
Grounds convenor for the rugby club is Peter Caldwell who is joined on the grounds committee by Moore Kennedy.
Moore is very passionate about the grounds and the upkeep of the facility and devotes quite a lot of his time to the club.
"There are no staff members employed by the club and all the team that looks after the grounds are volunteers," said Moore. "Some of them are retired and some of them want to be retired!"
"All our grounds work is governed by the weather. If it isn't playing ball, then we can't do our job."
"The Russell Pitch, where the cricket square is located, used to be bog land which was filled up with over twelve feet of rubble and soil over time."
"We have a very energetic membership here and the grounds do take a beating over the seasons with quite a lot of games played on them. However, all four pitches and the training field are quite resilient and can handle the abuse."
"We do look after them well though. When the grounds are vacated at the end of the season, we commence a programme of seeding, draining and sanding. Outside contractors are used for the sanding, seeding and verti-draining operations which take place over a week long period in the year," said Moore.
"The contractor comes down from Ballymoney and spends a week here at a time to justify bringing the equipment here. He may also work at other sports grounds in the neighbourhood while in this area."
There are four adult teams playing at the club, with three youth teams aged 18, 16 and 14. This is on top of two under 15 teams, two under 13 teams, two under 11s and a team of 35 youngsters with learning disabilities known as the Clare Hares.
The Clare Hares initiative was first set up by Moore Kennedy and Clifford Gilmore to provide tag rugby for people with a learning disability.
On top of that, Ballyclare Rugby Club hosts probably the biggest mini rugby tournament in Ulster. The last time this event was held was in 2016, when it attracted a massive crowd of 1,200 kids from Primary 3 to Primary 7 age groups to the club.
"The children come from all over Northern Ireland, Scotland, England and the Republic of Ireland," said Moore. "It really was a huge event and took a lot of organising. However, our rewards are gathered from seeing the children enjoying themselves playing in the event."
Moore also helps arrange this tournament which runs so smoothly that some of his colleagues said it was organised and ran "with military style precision".
The rugby club premises are also home to a hockey pitch that was once used by a ladies hockey team but now lies defunct as a pitch, but useful for extra car parking.
"That pitch used to be fully functioning, but it has not been used for a number of years. It is in our plans to bring it back into operation if we can attract another hockey team to play here. It has been used for car parking more recently, but hopefully in the future we will return it to a sports pitch," said Moore.
With heavy usage, the pitches at Ballyclare Rugby Club are subject to compaction and drainage issues, but a rigorous maintenance programme helps 'iron out the wrinkles'.
"Last year, we used a BLEC Groundbreaker to open up the ground and let the air in," said Moore. "We used it across all pitches to relieve compaction."
"It's a relatively simple concept. The blades penetrated the ground and made trenches eight inches deep. This lets lots of air into the ground structure and helped the drainage a great deal. The contractor brought in the machine and it certainly did a great job for us."
Moore added that the only pests that have an adverse effect on both the rugby pitches and the cricket grounds are rabbits - and lots of them.
"They really play havoc with our grounds here and we try to control them as best we can."
The club has a good working relationship with the local Antrim and Newtownabbey Council which supports the work of both the rugby and cricket clubs. In fact, the rugby club hopes to purchase its own tractor in the coming months with some financial assistance from the council.
"We don't have a lot of machinery or equipment of our own here," said Moore. "We do have a Fleming finishing mower, but we depend on the loan of a tractor from local farmers or other sports clubs to operate it!"
"A local farmer also donated an old Cambridge roller to us at one stage which we were very grateful for. It does help the grounds a lot come the spring time or after heavy playing use, weather permitting of course."
Up on the main pitch, where the first team play, volunteers have planted 400 native trees over the past two years to increase shelter for players and spectators.
A couple of other interesting additions to this pitch area are the 'President's Bench', where the president likes to sit to enjoy matches, and the new digital scoreboard that was installed in 2016.
"We like to have something new added each year," said Moore. "Or even something changed. That keeps us fresh and modern."
"I have to say all the members here, from both clubs, have immense pride in the facilities. We enjoy looking after the place and are thrilled that so many people want to be members here at both the clubs."
"The rental arrangement we have with the cricket club works very well for us. Of course, the same with any marriage, it has to be worked at but, in the end, the two sports combine well together and offer the local community and beyond an excellent sporting facility with the best grounds that we can possible achieve," he said.
And, when it comes to the cricket club, it too is run by volunteers who also have immense pride in what they do and how they look after their own little piece of ground in Ballyclare.
For the past twenty years, Arthur Bowron has looked after the grounds for Templepatrick Cricket Club, wherever it has been. He is the current grounds convenor for the club and began his playing career back in 1995.
"I began playing cricket back in 1995 as I always had an interest in the sport," said Arthur. "I work mostly on the cricket square here, with one other person, on a volunteer basis. There are another three people who work on the outfield and we sometimes bring experts in to do soil sampling and examine the square."
"The pitches, where the cricket square is, were filled in with over twelve feet of rubble and soil when they were being constructed. As a result, we have a cricket square standing on soil with an excellent root structure."
"I took two cricket ground courses, at levels one and two, to educate myself on the best husbandry for the cricket square."
The cricket square consists of eight wickets and one synthetic wicket and the club has its own ground sheets and roll on covers should the weather turn nasty.
There are also four synthetic practice wickets located close by in an enclosed area, which was constructed around five years ago.
"During the cricket season, we maintain the cricket square at around 10 to 15mm grass height. The rugby guys prefer the grass to be longer, but we like it shorter for obvious reasons."
"In the winter and spring months, we spike the ground, if conditions allow. At the end of the season, we normally scarify the square, topdress it and reseed. The synthetic pitches are all brushed, washed and rolled as well."
"Five years ago, we completely relaid the entire cricket square and verti-drained the outfield. This gave us a completely rejuvenated square on which to play and it has stood up well since then."
Arthur noted the members of club are extremely conscious of implementing top health and safety practices at all times.
"With this in mind," he said, "we will be developing our own health and safety manual soon which will detail safe methods of working."
With two different sets of volunteers maintaining the grounds, there should be a decent variety of machinery to hand for the chores. However, as the grounds people at both clubs are all volunteers, and due to the fact the membership is quite large, the local farmers supply most of the machinery when required.
The convenors also make use of the machinery from the local football and golf clubs, an arrangement that works both ways when in operation.
Among the cricket club's machinery itinerary is a brand new Ransomes Highway 2130 ride-on mower, but mostly they operate second hand machinery sourced from local dealers.
Other equipment owned by the cricket club includes a Dennis 31 inch mower, a Hayter 15 inch mower, a reconditioned road roller, Sisis reconditioned scarifier and a Groundsman turf aerator.
"If there was one piece of equipment that I could wish for, it would be a power steered roller," said Arthur.