2 All sports in all seasons at Swansea University

Now conveniently abbreviated to 'Sport Swansea', the University's Department of Sport and Physical Recreation encompasses a vast array of indoor and outdoor activities played on turf and synthetic surfaces.

Glancing at the computer screen in his office, Grounds Manager, John Courtney, points out that the all-weather pitches and running track at the University's main Sketty Lane facility attracted around 90,000 individual users in 2011 with a similar number visiting last year.

"In addition, more than 200 different events were hosted on Sport Swansea's turf areas during the year, making regular and proper maintenance the foundation of everything we do, helping keep all of our users happy," commented John. "I've been working at the University for a little over seven years and extreme weather conditions are generally the cause of any pitch closures."

John says that his previous experience as sole cricket groundsman at St Helen's, Swansea, provided a great springboard for the grounds manager's post at the University's sports centre which he took up in late 2005, relocating some 1,000 metres west along the Mumbles Road.

"When I was at St Helen's, I was employed by the City and County of Swansea which owns the combined rugby and cricket ground," he explained. "Prior to that, I had spent fourteen years working at various locations throughout the area for the local authority's grounds maintenance department."

As a result, John accumulated good knowledge of the unique climate of the Gower peninsula which leans toward milder, moister conditions coming in from the Atlantic, with the Welsh mountains to the north sheltering the area from extremes of cold weather.

Understanding the weather and its influence on turf health and condition has proved a great help to him in maintaining and presenting first-class sports surfaces at the University.

Supporting John in making sure that Sport Swansea's natural turf and synthetic surfaces remain in optimum condition and ready for use on schedule are assistants, Leighton Williams and Ross Davies.

Leighton has been in the job for six years, moving to Sketty Lane from the University's former grounds in the city's Fairwood district, used also by Swansea City Football Club as a training centre.

Ross has worked for the University since 2009 and, like John Courtney, came from a single sport environment, having previously been an assistant greenkeeper at nearby Clyne Golf Club.

Between them, the three groundsmen are responsible for maintaining indoor and outdoor sports surfaces used throughout the week by three principal groups: the University's students; Swansea City FC's youth academy; and the surrounding community and nearby schools.
In addition, the facilities are utilised for training by local sports clubs and by top flight teams visiting the area from other parts of Britain or on overseas tours.

"Standards range from international football and rugby players using the pitches for high-level training sessions, to enthusiastic amateurs who run a few circuits of our athletics track every week," explained John. "In all cases, every surface is maintained and presented to the same high standard, irrespective of the age or ability of those using them."

Sport Swansea has three grass pitches covering a total area of almost 3.5ha. One of the pitches is dedicated primarily to rugby, whilst the other two are ear-marked for football, although they can be used for other purposes, if required, said John.

This is particularly true of the pitch inside the athletics track which benefits from powerful floodlighting, making the entire area suitable for winter evening training sessions.

"We can provide a pitch marked out for just about any sport that students wish to pursue," commented John. "Since I first joined the University, students have asked for turf and all-weather surfaces to be prepared for sports and games ranging from lacrosse, five-a-side football and Frisbee competitions to rounders, volleyball and Australian Rules Football. If students want it, where we can, we'll provide it."

Evidence of the diversity of sports that are played on the indoor and outdoor surfaces can be found in a drawer in John's desk, which contains a well-thumbed pocket book detailing the full range of pitch dimensions and regulation line markings.

"We apply a lot of paint through our two line-marking machines each year, normally marking-up once a week in dry weather for games taking place on a Wednesday and Saturday," he explained. "If the weather is wet, as in the past two seasons, we will mark twice a week on the day before a game."

John pointed out that a Vitax Supaturf Arrow Briteliner transfer wheel unit is the team's preferred choice on turf, as the paint coats solely the blades of grass and does not penetrate the sward too deeply. "This means that the same surface can be freshly marked-up for a completely different sport the following week, and there is little chance of confusion as the older line is not so prominent, having started to fade," he said.

For more permanent line marks on turf, and when touching-up the two water-based Astroturf pitches and six tarmacadam tennis courts, the groundstaff use a pedestrian-controlled Bowcom spray marker.

Annual re-marking of all synthetic surfaces, which include both indoor and outdoor running tracks, is carried out under contract by White Line Services International.

When John first arrived at Swansea University, team sports did not have as high a profile as they do now. Limitations on the use of the grass playing fields, caused principally by poor drainage, meant that the Sketty Lane ground hosted solely the University's first teams' fixtures, consisting of six games of football and six games of rugby a year.

Steady improvements made to the turf pitches over the past seven years have seen a dramatic rise in their utilisation, highlighted by the fact that 353 sporting fixtures took place on the playing fields in 2011.

This increase in use has been accompanied by a corresponding rise in the grounds maintenance budget, as John explained.

"I started off in November 2005 with no budget whatsoever," he recalled. "I told the department that investment was needed to improve the grass pitches and that the expenditure would be repaid by increased utilisation of the facilities."

In his first year, John was given £1,000 to spend on topdressings, fertilisers and grass seed. The resulting improvements brought-in additional income of £4,000 over the next twelve months.

The following year, a rise in the grounds maintenance budget enabled more money to be spent on materials and machinery, further improving the pitches and generating a boost in usage and income.

"By 2007, the grounds department had become virtually self-financing, and has remained that way ever since," commented John. "The results of our labours can be judged by the extensive use now being made of the sports centre and the surrounding playing fields by students and local people."

Today, the facility is the home venue for matches involving all the University's main rugby union and association football teams.

There has also been a rising level of repeat bookings and resident training camps run, amongst others, by the Welsh Rugby Union, New Zealand Rugby, the Welsh FA and a number of top-flight football and rugby clubs.

To help absorb the increasing pressure on his sports turf areas, John was provided with funding, in 2012, to improve the pitch that is dedicated primarily to rugby.

Located on the south side of the site, the pitch was suffering from poor water dispersal and was starting to develop rippling across the surface.

At the end of July 2012, the entire area was fraise-mowed with a Koro Field Top Maker and then power-harrowed using machines brought in by Inscapes, the contractor engaged by John to carry out the project.

Having laser-graded the pitch to produce a 1 in 200 fall towards the south, a seedbed was created and sown with a 100 percent perennial ryegrass mix comprising four top-rated varieties designed to provide a dense sward with high levels of wear tolerance, excellent winter colour and good recovery capabilities.

The job was completed with a 200kg/ha application of Headland Xtend fertiliser, followed by the spreading of 90 tonnes of sand topdressing applied evenly across the entire area.

"The weather helped produce fantastic establishment and grow-in," recalled John. "The cover was so good that we were able to release the renovated pitch for a training session on 13 September.

"The pitch then hosted three rugby matches over the next two weeks with no ill-effects. The work has transformed the surface, giving faster recovery and making it easier to maintain, benefitting everyone working on and using the ground."

To keep it that way, John and his staff carry out a weekly aeration programme throughout the playing season encompassing all three sports pitches.

Three weeks out of four, the turf is treated by a tractor-mounted blade-type aerator working at 150mm- 200mm deep. During the fourth week, a deep-tine aerator is used, fitted with 12mm or 27mm solid tines and operating at depths between 180mm and 250mm.

"The type and degree of aeration treatment selected each week is very weather dependent," commented John. "We walk the pitches after every game, replacing and repairing divots, and then decide which aerator to use depending on rainfall levels and the ground's ability to respond. The important thing is to maintain percolation to prevent standing water, helping the surface dry out and recover."

The regular aeration programme is accompanied by pure-sand topdressings three or four times during the season, applied by a drop-style spreader. Winter feeding of the turf takes place in December and March - weather permitting - using Headland's Xtend 15:2:20+MgO slow-release granular formulation.

June and September sees summer feed applications of Xtend 22:2:8+MgO, a similar granular product designed to release nutrients over two to three months.

Control of annual and perennial weeds takes place twice a year with the help of a tractor-mounted boom sprayer and hand-operated knapsack sprayers applying T2 Green broad spectrum selective herbicide, Safor mosskiller and Clinic Ace glyphosate, chosen according to weed location, density and type.

John commented that he aims to apply fungicides only when a potential disease risk is identified, assisted by his sound knowledge of local climate and the conditions that promote turf disease.

Mowing of all sports pitches is carried out by a John Deere 7200 ride-on mower equipped with three five-bladed cutting units set at a constant 30mm height of cut. This model is supported by a 25hp JD 1026R hydrostatic sub-compact utility tractor with 1.37m mid mower deck, delivered in January by local John Deere dealer, Powercut.

Replacing an ageing JD 455, the new tractor-mower is helping look after the site's more confined grass areas, as well as supporting a 48hp JD 4320 compact tractor with transport and towing duties, including cleaning of the two water-based synthetic pitches.

A quick calculation by John reveals that the total area of turf and composite surfaces looked after by the grounds team adds up to more than 6.5ha. This figure includes a 300-space car park and six sand-filled all-weather tennis courts maintained by the team on behalf of a neighbouring private tennis club.

If the two compact tractors are engaged on other grounds work, a John Deere TX Turf Gator is available to move materials, hand equipment and staff around the site. This machine was delivered new in December 2012, replacing a similar six-year old model.

Regular maintenance of the outdoor water-filled Astroturf pitches involves weekly brushing of the surface to straighten and level the fibres using a trailed Wiedenmann Terra Brush. This operation is accompanied by power sweeping at least once a month to remove surface debris and lift the pile. The sweeper is used also to keep the running track clean.

The indoor sports centre's synthetic surface also receives a regular weekly clean with a Hako 940 sweeper which is kept in a secure room within the building.

Apart from touching-up linemarkings, as and when required, John and his groundstaff leave all other routine tasks on the University's indoor and outdoor synthetic sports surfaces to the Sport Swansea Indoor Training Centre staff. This includes applying fresh water to the Astroturf pitches ahead of a game.

Having successfully upgraded, in 2012, one of the three turf pitches in his care, John is now looking to achieve a similar result with the pitch located inside the athletics track.

"The existing drainage system does not allow the surface to best support the increasing demands being placed on it throughout the year, especially when faced with torrential downpours," he said. "Carrying out sand slitting and sand banding will transform the pitch and allow me to guarantee its availability in all but the wettest of weather conditions."

"I am hopeful that funds can be found for improvements to this infield pitch, enabling it to host more sporting fixtures, which can only be of benefit to the University."


Photo captions:

1. John Courtney

2. Grounds manager, John Courtney (left), and his two groundstaff, Leighton Williams (centre) and Ross Davies

3. Bird's eye view of the main sports facility adjacent to Sketty Lane (far right). Within the area are three winter sports pitches, indoor and outdoor athletics centres, two water-based Astroturf pitches and six tarmacadam tennis courts

4. White-lining is a regular task on the three sports pitches at Sketty Lane. A transfer-wheel machine is preferred for pitches hosting a variety of different sports as the markings are not as permanent as those produced by a spray-type marker

5. All pitches are mown weekly with a three-cylinder ride-on mower set to cut at a consistent height of 30mm

6. Swansea University's running track and infield are used for a host of sporting activities throughout the year encompassing athletics competitions, university football matches and, as shown here, local schools' sports days

7. Upgraded in summer 2012, the principal rugby pitch was stripped and graded to produce a 1 in 200 fall away from the camera before the top soil was replaced, seeded, fertilised and topdressed. The surface was back in use in six weeks

8. Holes are prepared for the installation of rugby posts on the pitch inside the running track. John Courtney is hoping to upgrade pitch drainage in the near future using a combination of sand slitting and sand banding

9. Weekly brushing of the two water-filled Astroturf pitches helps lift and straighten the fibres, improving the run and speed of the ball


What's in the shed?

John Deere 4320 compact tractor with 400CX front loader
John Deere 1026 sub-compact tractor with 1.37m Auto Connect mid mower deck
John Deere 7200 triplex trim mower
John Deere Gator TX Turf
Wiedenmann Terra Spike XP 210
Sisis 1.5m Multislit
Jar-Met tractor-mounted sprayer with 3.6m boom
Sitrex tractor-mounted spinning disc fertilizer spreader
Wiedenmann Terra Top drop-style topdresser
Sisis turf roller
Kubota grass harrow
Vitax Supaturf Arrow Briteliner
Bowcom GMX spray linemarker
Sisis SSS 1000 sweeper
Wiedenmann Terra Brush
Hako 940 ride-on sweeper
Victa pedestrian rotary mowers x2
Stihl multi tool with hedge trimmer and cultivator attachments
Stihl hand-held blowers x3
Stihl grass trimmers x3
Karcher pressure washer
Stanley compressor
Kubota 750kg trailer
Various hand-held implements and tools

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