0 All change for the Kingsholm

Under relatively new ownership, it is all change at the Kingsholm Stadium, home of Gloucester Rugby. As well as a new corporate identity - including a new crest - the playing surface has been upgraded too, with a new Motz Hero hybrid surface being laid, through which the grass grows. Head Groundsman Dave Balmer talked to Pitchcare about this latest innovation in playing surfaces.

The Kingsholm's David Balmer, 60, has been stadium manager for twenty-two years, having started on 1st February 1996, just as rugby union finally decided it wasn't a sin to pay players.

I asked him whether he would have joined an amateur club at the time: "When they started officially paying the players in September of 1996, they'd already been paying some anyway. We took on some full-time coaches and a manager. It was a full unit revamp."

"I think I was always going to be involved in the grounds somewhere, because my brother [Graeme] was getting involved at a similar time and my dad had been head of grounds at the King's School."

We described the 'Balmer Dynasty' in a 2006 feature article, and the family situation has changed little since. What has changed includes the profile of the still-young professional sport, as well as the Kingsholm's pitch construction.

"My brother left that same school in 2010. He has advised me, my part-time colleague Mack, and my apprentice Jerome, ever since."

"He has his own business, from which we use the verti-drain, topdresser and seeder. He's an ECB Pitch Advisor and looks after the Three Counties Showground at Malvern."

Just as I had arrived, Dave had taken a delivery from the Pitchcare team.

Dave said: "I use Pitchcare quite a bit, because it's a simple transaction, the delivery service is good and their rep here, Mark Allen, is helpful too."

Club rugby union doesn't draw huge crowds when compared with other ball sports like football, rugby league or T20 cricket, and the code is strongly associated with its international arm:

"We're averaging probably around 10,000 spectators per game. That puts us around third or fourth strongest-attended in the sport. Leicester get a lot, and Wasps get more since they moved to Coventry."

"This is the problem with rugby union for people who don't follow it: they don't think it starts until the end of January when you see the Six Nations on the telly."

"I know there's more coverage of it now on pay-per-view across Sky and BT, but a lot of people don't consider it running because they don't see it on ITV or the BBC. They might watch rugby league instead, because you can access one of its competitions on terrestrial TV."

"Also, the World Cup in 2015 didn't do us a lot of good, with England hosting it and not making it through to the play-offs. That probably cost us a few kids, who would now be three years older."

However, given the situation of areas like Gloucester in the wealthy 'middle-English' parts of the country, they draw a relatively high number of celebrity fans who make their homes there:

"John Bishop came for a Lionel Richie concert we held not long ago. Robert Plant from Led Zeppelin comes to some of the matches, as does Mike Tindall, the former England, Bath and Gloucester outside centre."

And then there's Campey Turf Care's ambassador, Ian 'Poggy' Pogson', who is a life long supporter of the Cherry and Whites.

"We have big concerts regularly. In recent years, they've included shows by Tom Jones, Little Mix and Jess Glynne. Elton John and Madness have performed here too."

"After the aluminium framings are taken down, we spray the grass with glyphosate and fraize-mow to clean it up, and we then renovate."

"Nick Knowles is another regular fan, because he's connected with Rugby for Heroes, which is run by a chap in Gloucester. He does work with them, living locally; guest appearances and such."

He clarified the appeal of the job, regardless of the sport's professionalism, reminding me that sometimes it's the job that chooses you:

"My dad and I both lived up near Oxford at the time, so we agreed it would be a good idea, partly because we could share the travelling, and the whole thing made sense."

"He'd been a groundsman since the early sixties, at various public schools and RAF Brize Norton. It was in the blood then. We'd always gone as kids to help him."

"I started off as a trainee builders surveyor. The industry went through a slump and my employers went bankrupt. The Construction Industry Training Board tried to find me another post, but there were none within fifty miles of me."

"I took on a grounds job with the council and never moved away from it after that, so it wasn't really a matter of whether I always wanted to do the job."

"Anyway, my dad retired in 1999, so I sold my house and moved to Gloucester. I live just around the corner now, so it's very convenient."

The Kingsholm has just (this spring) had a new Motz Hero hybrid surface supplied by County Turf, on the back of its first new ownership in over twenty years.

"It's a popular turf in the southern hemisphere, and Real Madrid also have a couple of their tertiary pitches constructed in this format. It sits somewhere between Desso-type pitches and Fibresand."

"Until recently, because we're in the bed of the River Severn, it's always been a river silt profile, plus anywhere between 60-100 tonnes of sand per renovation."

"That doesn't sit in the surface; it works its way down through the profile. That's okay for most of the season but, in the dead of winter, the pitch becomes less predictable."

"It's come back quite well this spring, but the south edge, with the big stand, does shade it quite a lot and restrict photosynthesis. It does struggle a bit. We've got to keep fertiliser on it and keep verti-draining."

Dave doesn't employ contracted agronomy help, because of his brother's status as a pitch advisor, but will be using the turf supplier's service partners now the new surface has been installed. He also doesn't use contractors for major work.

"We start mowing ten days after a normal renovation - I'm less sure with this one - and then it's every other day for a while, stepped up to daily after a month's fertiliser has set in."

"Normally, about three times during a season, we'll put about eight bags of seed down. Because the weather's good at the moment, some of the current germination, therefore, might be from as early as November."

"That can depend on the weather, but I'm not sure it's changed much since I started doing this about forty years ago."

"Weather always changes. But, we still have years where we'll put seed down in December and it will germinate in a few weeks and others where it will take until February."

"That's just the way the seasons swing, I think. This year's been weird, because we've had spells of real warmth, but also spells of deep snow and rains."

"Sometimes, we'll feel the need to topdress during the season too. We haven't done this year. We do all of those sorts of things throughout the season too."

"Up to now, we've triple-mown it off to 35mm and finished with a ride-on rotary. Again, it's different now. It'll all be walk-behind, but again followed by the cleaning rotary at perhaps even below 30mm."

"We usually ProCore once per month, then use the large verti-drain to get some 19mm holes in there every three months. If we think it's necessary, we can then run over it with a slitter too."

The club has frost sheets, which are around twenty-five years old and are to be replaced. They also have a pitch covering system organised by the league on prioritised request, which consists of a heated inflatable dome, again for frost, but also sometimes for heavy rains.

"When they pump the dome full of the gas they use, it can get to over twenty degrees in there, which is very good for disease during the winter. We have to be ready to spray at a moment's notice, which is the drawback to that."

The pitch has run over 5-metre-by-1-metre drainage pipes, although the nature of the profile often prevents water from running directly into these.

These have been replaced with a system optimised for the new sand-based profile and they are looking into whether the pitch currently holds enough irrigation heads, and whether to upgrade.

"Whilst we had the nematode issue a few years ago - when it was all the rage - we shook that off by maintaining good fertiliser usage."

"That's been around every six weeks in season since then, plus a good seasonal base twice a year, i.e. a spring/summer and an autumn/winter."

"The component levels are a bit of a mix-and-match, which is good. It means that sometimes we can put down an autumn/winter in the summer, just to focus on root growth."

"I don't take soil samples much, because my brother and I have been doing this for so long. Usually, you can just look at the plant and see whether it needs any nutrition. I tend not to worry too much about pH or similar. It's much more a visual thing."

"Using a sand-based pitch will be a new experience for both of us, however. We'll see what happens through County Turf going forward and may start to do more of that sort of thing."

"Occasionally, we'll spray with a liquid too, but we haven't needed to for the last two years. We were going to put some seaweed down a couple of weeks back, when it was looking a bit flat and sad due to the rain, but the ground temperature is back up now."

"We use pre-made fertiliser from the main proprietary suppliers. We'll go with their combinations, because they tend to work perfectly well."

"They haven't made those proportions up for no reason. They know what they're doing. And with a decent soil profile, as we have had, it holds onto the nutrients well."

"However, we may start to suffer from leaching with this new profile, so a change-up might be needed as we see how the surface develops over the coming season."

Dave said his dad instilled in him an attitude to prioritise a pitch that will work well for players, before worrying about the supporters' opinions:

"There's no point going on the pitch if it's wet just for the sake of it. 90% of the time, you'll be doing more damage than good. The weather's there to be worked with, not against you."


Club CEO Steven Vaughan explains the new logo change

"Last year, we commenced a review of all our communications and brand. A full audit and research project was undertaken across the club with the primary objective to deliver an agreed set of values that every member of staff, whether that be in the playing department or elsewhere, could be guided by.

This piece of work also looked at the future design of all Gloucester Rugby communications and different logos used across the club. This included areas such as Community, Conferencing and Events, Hospitality and others, where we had a large number of different logos and nothing linking them together.

It became clear that our current logo did not fully portray our ambition for the club and we needed a more contemporary logo that reflects the traditional elements of Gloucester Rugby.

We now have a Master brand that does that really well and will support our ambitions for the future. The name of the club was never in question and we remain Gloucester Rugby.

The Gloucester Rugby brand is a key element in terms of the future success of the club and, whilst we know for some people it will take a little getting used to, we are really proud of what has been developed and know the changes will support our ambitions for the future."


Dave Balmer talks to Gloucester Rugby TV about the new pitch

GRTV: "Dave, behind us, in the distance, we can see a couple of pieces of machinery carrying on doing the work on the pitch. What's happened so far?"

Dave Balmer: "Basically, what we've done since the end of the season… they came in and removed the top vegetation off the pitch and removed another 150mm of soil, then we put a new drainage system in across the pitch. That was complemented with a smaller, narrower drainage system running down the pitch.

That was overlaid with 150mm of sand. As you can see, they've now covered that with the green carpet. The green carpet is now being filled with 40mm of sand, and once the sand has been brushed in, like they're doing with the machine at the moment, the pitch will then be seeded, and hopefully, within three weeks, we'll be mowing."

GRTV: "So, what you can actually see in the background here is actually artificial fibres?"

Dave: "It is. It's an artificial mat, which has covered the whole pitch, and the grass will grow through the backing on this mat, which is biodegradable. The root structure will form underneath and the stability of the pitch should improve tremendously."

GRTV: "And one of the key things for you is the drainage as well, because that's going to take away any sort of heaviness in the winter. You're going to have to water it more than you have done in the past, aren't you?"

Dave: "Yes. I can see the irrigation now running on a daily basis because, with it being sand-based, it will drain so freely. Rain problems on matchdays - touch wood - should hopefully be a thing of the past."

GRTV: "And will you have some sort of sprinkler system in place?"

Dave: "The sprinkler system in the pitch is still as it was in the previous pitch. We've still got 20 sprinkler heads, and that should suffice to keep it moist enough."

GRTV: "Now, when you actually sow the grass seed, how long will it be until it actually starts to show?"

Dave: "Hopefully, we should see seed up within seven days. We'll probably look to be mowing from anything within 10-15 days."

GRTV: "So, at the moment, bearing in mind we've got a friendly in the latter part of August, should everything be on track and proper and ready and bedded-in for then?"

Dave: "Yes. We shall start a fertiliser regime once the grass has actually come through and, once we get to the 23rd August, things should be looking quite fine."

GRTV: "And it sounds like, even though there's an element of artificial in this new pitch, there's just as much work for you and the team to do."

Dave: "Yes. The mowing is going to be on a different basis, because we'd be using pedestrian mowers rather than the ride-on triple we've been using in the past, so that'll be a bit more labour-intensive. And, post-match, we'll need to use the rotary mowers to clean off all the debris, to keep the structure of the pitch nice and clean."

GRTV: "And I guess, like ourselves, you'll be as keen to see what the actual finished product is going to look like, aren't you?"

Dave: "Oh, yes. It's taken us into the 21st Century, and it's upwards and onwards, really."

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