It's been five years since I last visited the Kingsholm stadium, home of Gloucester Rugby Club, so I thought it was about time to call in and catch up on the latest gossip and see how the pitch had been performing. It was coming to the end of a long, hard season in which the club had done well, finishing third in the Aviva Premiership behind the winners Bath and second placed Exeter.
Even though the domestic rugby season had finished, the pitch was still being used to accommodate Churchill Cup matches. In fact, when I arrived, Dave Balmer, the Stadium Manager, and his brother Graeme, were getting the pitch ready to host two of these matches; England Saxons v Tonga and Italy v Russia, both to be held on Saturday 12th June, with kick offs at 2.30pm and 5.00pm.
Graeme joined the grounds team at Kingsholm, as Head Groundsman, last December. He is no stranger to the ground, having spent many years helping his brother whilst he was the Head Groundsman at King's School. However, after serving the school for twenty-five years he felt he needed a change.
He is self-employed and contracted to work thirty hours a week at the club. This allows him to undertake other work as well; his services are used by local bowls and cricket clubs, whilst he is also an ECB county adviser. In this role he works closely with Jason Hobs, another of Gloucestershire's county advisers.
The pitch looked very good. Dave and Graeme said that the pitch had recovered really well from the severe winter weather and the exceptionally dry spring. Also, they were not able to carry out a full pitch renovation, knowing that they had to accommodate the Churchill Cup matches. The brothers had, therefore, decided to split the renovation work into two cycles, doing some work on the pitch as soon as the domestic playing season finished, May 7th, and continuing straight after the Churchill Cup Games.
Because of the split renovation schedule, they could only carry out a basic renovation programme: mowing the sward down, verti-draining the pitch, topdressing and overseeding. Only forty tonnes of 70/30 (sand/soil) was applied and eight bags of seed (4 bags of MM50, 4 bags MM60). It was a case of raising the height of cut until the grass had germinated, and then mowing on a regular basis to help the sward tiller.
Just prior to the new rugby season starting in September 2011, Graeme will again aerate the pitch, this time using the Earthquake linear aerator set at 200mm centres, and topdress with another forty tonnes of 70/30.
They feed the pitch with an array of products using granular and liquid , with some seaweed and other organic materials to keep the soil in balance.
The pitch has remained fairly unchanged since it was constructed in 1891. Being soil based it has had its fair share of drainage problems in the past. However, a recent programme of localised drainage works has improved matters.
The club use additional facilities at Hartpury College, where there are natural and artificial grass pitches.
Dave does not have an unlimited budget for the pitch and, consequently, has to ensure he gets value for money when buying and procuring services. However, with such a long history of groundsmanship in his family, he is not short of a few contacts to help him achieve his aims. His substantial experience at the club additionally aids his success - Dave has been Stadium Manager at Kingsholm for over fifteen years, and has done virtually every job involved in running a busy rugby club.
He explained what a typical week would be like leading up to a match:
Dave is ever mindful that the weather will influence the work he and Graeme can achieve on the pitch, so keeping an eye on the weather is crucial. He has a number of sources he can take forecasts from, including Pitchcare's own service, which sends him email updates on a daily basis. They also have a contract with Sports and Stadia Services that offers them a frost cover system should they feel the need for extra protection during the winter months.
Dave and Graeme aerate the pitch at the beginning of the week to allow it time to settle down before the weekend match. Deep tining is done using a Wiedenmann Terra-Spike to a depth of anything between seven and ten inches (175mm-250mm), with 20mm diameter tines set with little or no heave. Depending on the tine spacing, this job can take as little as three hours or as much as ten hours to complete.
Verti-draining is completed, and the pitch is brushed, using an 8ft Sisis brush on a Singleplay frame, to help stand the grass up, before cutting with their Toro Triple TPlex 185D cylinder mower, set at 38mm (Dave will raise the height of cut to 45mm during November through to March to help reduce wear).
It generally takes Graeme around two hours to cut the pitch lengthways in set bands but, if a more elaborate pattern is decided on, it will take longer.
Wednesdays can be quite busy; not only do they have to paint four logos in the dead ball areas, they also have to go and maintain pitches at a local school (an ongoing contract), mowing and marking out a number of sports pitches - football, rugby and athletics. In the afternoon, if they have enough time, they return to Kingsholm and mow the stadium pitch again.
Dave oversees the placement of any commercial advertising boards around the ground, and the painting of the main sponsor's logo in the middle of the pitch. Usually this is done by specialist contractors using a combination of aerosols, standard marking fluids and removable paints.
The size and complexity of the logo, and the paints used, determines whether they mow before or after it has been applied. Normally, they look to get in a bit earlier and mow the areas involved before the contractors arrive.
Dave also carries out checks on the floodlights, scoreboards and public address systems, making sure they are working. The last job of the day is to mark out the pitch ready for the 'Captain's Run' - the 1st Team's training session on the Friday before a game- which usually lasts a couple of hours.
If the game is to be shown live on TV, all the cable rigging will completed. Graeme will put out the post protectors and kicking nets ready for the Captain's Run whilst the players are out on the pitch. Dave takes the chance to catch up with the broadcasting company, check other issues and ensure all the toilets are working.
As soon as the players finish their training, Dave, Graeme and any other helpers will quickly divot the pitch before mowing it again.
Their final job of the day is to overmark the pitch using a spray jet marker set at four inches (100mm). This ensures that the lines are bright enough for the TV cameras to pick up.
Below is a brief extract of timings and events taken from their Match Day Operations Schedule:
0700 - Car park secured
0800 - Emergency gates unlocked and flags up
0830 - All stadium toilets opened and checked
0900 - Pitch branding checked and touched up if required. Post pads and flags put out
0930 - Scoreboards and PA system checked
1000 - Media areas opened and TV interview backdrops set up
1100 - Ticket office systems checked
1130 - Stadium secured (all contractors to be on site). Duty electrician arrives. Tournament organisers' meeting (if required)
1200 - Turnstiles open. Bars open to public. Community Dept. Stadium tours begin
1230 - Community Dept. Coaching sessions begin on pitch (weather permitting)
1300 - Pre-match entertainment begins (brass band)
1400 - Players individual warm up begins on pitch
1430 - Gloucester squad warm up begins
1450 - Players tunnel access to key staff only
1458 - Teams out
1500 - Kick Off
1540 - Half Time
1550 - Second Half
1630 - Final Whistle
1700 - Spectators cleared from the stands. Commence locking stadium
1730 - Toilets and all gates locked.
1830 - Hospitality areas begin closing
1930 - Stadium closes - bars remain open