0 Four pitches ‘just like a big garden’

The principal volunteer groundsperson at Willenhall Rugby Union Football Club is 44-year-old Iain Athersmith. He's a big guy with an even bigger beard. Jake Barrow switched on his fog lights and headed for south Staffordshire.

Iain Athersmith has joined at an ambitious time in the club's history, as it aims to shake up membership numbers, improve its surface and clubhouse, and generally invest in the club's long-term future.

Whilst taking on this responsibility in addition to his day job, Iain is not showing signs of stress. He called it therapeutic, boldly stating: "I like gardening. I've done a lot of gardening. And this is just like a big garden."

Counterintuitively, Willenhall RUFC is not in the town of that name - it's not even that close. Instead, it lies about a 5-mile, 15-minute drive north in the village of, Essington. The rugby club, in fact, lies in Staffordshire, whilst Willenhall is in the borough of Walsall.

Iain was a rugby union player when he was younger (at prop forward), and his sons both took after him in this respect.

He said his youngest is perhaps the most enthusiastic about the sport, and it was through the family's current involvement in the club that he found out they needed help with the grounds.

Iain also maintains the non-turf grounds around the clubhouse, including the pathways, fixtures and other jobs which might be within the remit of a handyman. These are not dissimilar from some of the jobs he has to rattle through during his working days as a builder.

"I'm here quite often anyway, as my eldest comes up on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so I'd be here to watch. My youngest is also here on Wednesdays, alongside me coaching the U-15s that day too."

"So, it works really well for that reason. I thought I'd just tie it in with a bit of time after school with the kids. Out of my time, it's probably about eight hours per week, but it's sometimes as little as two. Depends on how far ahead I get."

"It was a steep learning curve for the first period I was here. I think it will continue to be a learning process for as long as I do it. Science is coming up with new tools for the job all the time."

"Part of the job is the learning, but because it's at club level and committee level, it's partly about getting requests passed through and ensuring we've got the funds with which to do things."

"You can do as much learning as you want, but we've got to be able to adapt and to know we're actually able to do the jobs we'd like to do. We managed to get the committee to agree to invest in a large Ransomes mower this past year."

General manager Martyn Loach, who was with us while I was interviewing Iain, added: "We also successfully applied for a large grant from the RFU to help fund things like that."

"A guy from Twickenham came down to have a look at the pitch to assess whether it was viable to provide us with the grant."

"They have given us a significant amount of money, as have another organisation which aims to help clubs like ours achieve their goals."

"We've made a concerted effort over the last four years to focus on the state of the pitch, because we've now got four pitches instead of two."

"The farmer used to lend two of the pitches to us and he'd cut the grass down for us and maintain it to some extent."

"We're now into our fourth year of leasing those and, because of that, we're in a situation where we're maintaining double the number of pitches, so we've had to invest in equipment, materials and everything that goes with it."

When asked whether he would be interested in undertaking formal groundsmanship qualifications, Iain replied: "It is something I'd like to investigate, as there are so many types of courses available. When you're doing something you enjoy, you don't mind learning it."

"I'm getting to know more about it, increasingly. We have someone come to take soil samples, which is how we're planning to arrange our fertiliser programme."

"We haven't chosen the products yet, so it's technically still on the table, but we like to take the advice of the RFU wherever possible."

Martyn added: "We've been making a few mistakes, over the years. We hired a guy to come in to help with the surface and he'd do a lot of cutting and rolling the pitches."

"So, we've ended up with a two-inch crust of very compacted soil. It's like fired clay. That's the reason the pitches have a recent history of waterlogging."

"Underneath that, the soil is fine. It's just about getting the water into that soil. We're looking into hiring equipment to make that happen. We'd like to use a verti-drain sometimes."

Iain has also calculated that around 90 tonnes of sand should be laid out between the two main pitches this year, with a 2:1 ratio on the main pitch and its secondary.

He stated that root depth is two inches at maximum - problematically, roughly the same depth as that compacted soil - and consists of mainly rye grass, but with less beneficial strains coming through because of the excessive rolling and the resultant compaction.

The surface also struggles a little with broadleaf plantain, although this is less of a concern on a rugby pitch than it would be on those with shorter grass.

"So, I've provisionally booked for the end of this season for those two surfaces to be weed-treated. We'll get those weeds done before we start any other work, so we're not working with the weeds in the way," Iain said.

"At the minute, we haven't got anything in place for serious, machined aeration. A couple of years ago, we had the ground 'earthquaked', which may have helped."

"If you research the process on the internet, some people are very positive about it. The RFU don't like it. They don't rate it."

"They say that it creates solid cracks in dried surfaces, which leads to crazing. It's like when you go to a desert and you stand on all the too-large cracks. It is something I looked at, but I thought I'd do some proper research first, rather than rushing in to it."

"That's why we're so tempted by the verti-drain, because the holes it produces are small enough to fill with sand and encourage that looseness while not being too big."

Martyn spoke about one of the key factors in such decisions: "The thing is that when the RFU says something, it's very beneficial to us to take that advice."

"That's because the RFU provide incentives for following their guidelines, which are well thought-out. If they tell us not to earthquake, we may as well listen, as they have the knowledge and it helps the relationship."

Another potential budget-friendly avenue for smaller clubs like Willenhall is an all-encompassing solution to aeration, scarification and related efforts.

Iain said: "We've also thought about the SISIS Quadraplay. We could get a small tractor with the SISIS attachment, which would help a lot. We just need the funding for that."

"But, in summary, that is the future here: once a year, it's going to be verti-drained; then, throughout the year, it will be slit and scarified, in opposite directions each instance. We've just purchased a seven-foot chain-harrow, which does some business for us as well."

Martyn added: "We've come a long way in a short period of time, and it's all come from having those two extra pitches."

"We used to pay a groundsman, who used to contract here, and he'd charge us for cutting per pitch, for weeding per pitch, feeding per pitch, and it was getting expensive."

"We will be using him for the weed killing, because you have to get hold of the chemicals and equipment with which to do that, so you do still need contractors for some things."

"If there's a good enough business case," he added, "Iain can pitch the costs and benefits to the committee and we can agree to save up for things that will cost a bit more than usual."

"So, the tractor and attachment, or anything like that, he can request that specifically and we'll always decide based on its merits."

"We're in a situation where, given a good case from Iain, if the club needs something, we've got the funds to pay for it anyway. That's with the grant money etc."

Iain said: "From my point of view, the key is just that I want a good pitch out there, so I'll put forward the best tools to make that happen."

"If they're jogging out onto the pitch saying 'Wow, this is smart', I'm happy then. And we have had a few positive comments since I started doing this, which makes me feel good. The grounds are tidier overall."

Martyn went on to speak about the link these factors have with the declining nature of rugby union and other sports at grassroots level:

"We have to grow our support base generally, and this is one of the best ways of doing that. The sport is struggling, so we're trying to get new members and players in all the time."

"Nobody wants to go and play rugby on a council pitch that's full of dog muck. The quality of the grounds and facilities is what it's all about."

There are land drains at the facility which Martyn has estimated to be a little over twenty years old. The club is considering whether to invest in a newer form of sports turf drainage.

They have had the classic example of budget-friendly, efficient drainage aids - boreholes - recommended to them and believe this will be the first step in the improvement process.

"They instructed us that we should have a couple of four-foot boreholes drilled in and filled with 20mm gravel, which would help to focus the moisture into quicker-draining areas."

One factor which naturally helps the moisture to drain away - helpful in recent months - is the abundance of wind. Martyn phrased it: "This is probably the windiest place in the world."

Iain confirmed: "You can travel from wherever you want from within a mile's radius of here in your shorts and t-shirt and you will have to put a jumper on."

On a normal week during the season, Iain mows once per week to between 40-50mm and, now the equipment is coming in, will be able to chain-harrow and perhaps Quadraplay at the same frequency.

He also marks out the pitch every couple of games, and we've arranged for a 10-litre complimentary tub of MAX-LINE Platinum Pro linemarking paint to trial. He often marks out free-hand and said he's at the pitch doing so by 6.00am some Sundays.

Asked about end of season renovations, Iain said: "Having them done is the plan. I'd like it. I'd like the best rugby pitch in the area."

"That's the goal, from my point of view. As long as I can convince the committee to spend money and I've got plans in place, that's what I want to aim for."

"This year is more difficult than most will be, because of the necessity for that much sand and seed. But, once that seed is growing, we won't need as much next year."

With all this money now focused rather than wasted, and spent in efficient ways, the club is showing its willingness to improve on all fronts.

Alongside the pitch improvements is a carefully planned clubhouse renovation, which will involve moving the bar area, the kitchen and a few other sections. Naturally, this is a major expense.

It is to be undertaken in that same spirit of increasing membership numbers, increasing interest in the sport locally, and ensuring the club's future survival and prosperity.

Clearly, this is a surface which is improving to a level it hasn't hit before, with the help of its first dedicated groundsperson and willing investment from the club; not just aimed at improving the state of the pitch but, more ambitiously, at the future of the club and rugby union in the area.

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