Opened in November 2008 as the new home of Welsh rugby union clubs, Scarlets and Llanelli RFC, the Parc y Scarlets stadium complex encompasses a first-class natural grass main pitch and training ground plus a composite athletics track, all tended by two of the UK's youngest professional groundsmen. Mike Bird learns how they do it
Less than four years ago, 25-year-old Luke Jenkins was working as the public catering manager at Llanelli's Parc y Scarlets stadium, responsible for ensuring that fast food and refreshments were available for up to 15,000 spectators attending high-profile rugby union and football matches from mid August through to the following May.
Today, Luke is the stadium's head groundsman, having taken over from Dean Gilasbey in June 2011 when the latter left to become technical specialist for a firm developing pest and disease control products for the sports turf and agricultural sectors.
Supporting Luke on day-to-day grounds maintenance tasks within the stadium, and other areas at Parc y Scarlets, is Jack Davies, who joined the staff in September 2011 from his previous position working as a local authority gardener.
Having been virtually on his own for three months, Luke was delighted when he was given a full-time assistant to replace the part-time youth trainees that had been enlisted to help him out during the summer of 2011.
"I had been working as Dean's assistant for just eight months before he left," recalled Luke. "Despite learning a tremendous amount during that time about the care of winter sports pitches, I was still very green and was concerned about making silly mistakes or costly decisions as I started on pitch renovations ready for the new season."
"It was a big responsibility, but Parc y Scarlets stuck with me and gave me all possible support, a situation that remains constant to this day. I was encouraged also by the fact that stadium manager, Dave Healey, was never far away and was always available to provide helpful advice or have a chat about pitch maintenance issues and practices."
A former head groundsman at Swansea City when the club played at the Vetch Field, Dave Healey was head groundsman at Llanelli's Stradey Park from July 2006 until the move to Parc y Scarlets, when he was appointed manager of the new stadium.
Built as a joint venture partnership between Carmarthenshire County Council and Llanelli Scarlets, Parc y Scarlets became, in 2008, the new home of Llanelli rugby, a position that had been held by Stradey Park for almost 130 years.
Scarlets' history as a team is considerably shorter, having been formed in 2003 as one of five (now four) Welsh regional professional rugby union teams newly created by the Welsh Rugby Union.
The move was designed to streamline and enhance Welsh rugby, with a smaller group of top-flight professional regional sides taking over from the nine long-established, well-known city and town clubs as the main supply line for the Wales national team.
Drawn primarily from the high-flying Llanelli team of 2001-2002, Scarlets enjoyed a very good first season whilst also fulfilling its role as the official regional rugby union representative for the west and north of Wales, encouraging and promoting the development of new and upcoming players alongside Wales' other three regional teams - Blues, Dragons and Ospreys - all of whom play matches across the British Isles and in Europe.
On 2nd August 2011, whilst finalising pitch preparations for the Scarlets first game of the new rugby season just 11 days later, Luke learned that the stadium had been selected by newly-promoted Barclays Premiership football club, Swansea City, as the host venue for its reserves squad for the coming season.
"We knew there was every likelihood of this happening when Swansea City secured promotion to the Premier League," said Luke. "As a Premiership club, Swansea City had to ensure that their reserves home ground achieved the high standard of facilities laid down by the Premier League."
Having previously hosted Wales under-21 and senior international football fixtures, as well as national, regional and local friendlies, Parc y Scarlets had proved itself capable of handling both rugby and football matches with equal success.
Not only was the stadium UEFA-accredited, but it had passed with flying colours the required eleven-point Premier League inspection, highlighted in a report which contained eight excellent gradings, two very good and one good.
As he worked on the pitch, Luke was confident that the turf would be able to take the additional strain of hosting all eleven Swansea reserve team fixtures, to be played on a Monday or Wednesday evening.
These timings, he reasoned, would fit well with the commitments already in place for Scarlets and Llanelli RFC home games, most of which would be taking place on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday afternoon or early evening.
"When completed in 2008, Parc y Scarlets was regarded as the most modern and high-tech stadium in Wales," commented Luke. "The design and build are of an exceptional standard and, because the spectators are very close to the pitch, there's a great match atmosphere. However, the management also wanted to be sure that the new playing surface was hard wearing and durable, whilst remaining flexible and player friendly."
Having visited and spoken with other stadium and grounds managers, the team opted to build its brand-new pitch in 2008 using Mansfield Sand's Fibrelastic system laid on top of undersoil heating, drainage and irrigation pipes located a minimum of 250mm below the surface.
Comprising 100 percent natural turf, grown on a rootzone of sand and organic matter reinforced with polypropylene and elastane fibres, Fibrelastic is designed to provide increased rootzone coherence and stability, helping boost grip and reduce surface disturbance.
A highlighted further benefit of incorporating fibres into the rootzone is a decrease in surface hardness, with a subsequent reduction in the level of impact jarring and potential player limb damage.
Until October 2010, Luke had been primarily an interested observer of the pitch. That situation changed overnight when he secured the post of assistant groundsman.
"The proper maintenance and care of sportsturf suddenly became very important to me and I realised, in a very short time, the advantages of having a resilient pitch that retains its integrity, resisting damage and promoting fast recovery and good health," he said. "Between August and May the following year, the main stadium pitch was used around eighty times for various purposes, half of which were either competitive rugby or football matches. Rapid recovery proved both essential and achievable, thanks mainly to its method of construction."
Luke recalls that end-of-season pitch renovations in the summer of 2011 proved quite straightforward, comprising tine aeration, scarification and overseeding. It was a somewhat different story on the training ground.
Although the training ground has experienced far higher seasonal use than the main stadium from the day the complex opened back in 2008, a combination of Mansfield Sand's Fibresand construction, good airflow and no shading by stands has helped promote fast turf recovery at lower levels of maintenance.
Even so, it was decided, in 2011, that the surface would benefit from renewal, so the turf was stripped off by fraise-mower, followed by cultivation, seeding and top dressing. Luke said that the action had paid dividends, producing a healthy and consistent sward, thanks to the 24-head in-pitch irrigation system which, in common with the main stadium's system, has proved an excellent management tool over the six years since the complex was completed.
In September 2011, with his assistant, Jack Davies, in place, Luke was able to start a two-year part-time course at Bridgend College, Pencoed, studying two days a month towards a Level 2 Diploma in Work-based Horticulture (Sports Turf).
The knowledge he gained on the course, plus the practical experience accumulated since he first took up his post, proved invaluable in December 2011 when Luke first noticed a problem with the main stadium pitch.
"We were in the middle of a very busy match schedule, with three games taking place over five days," he said. "I was rolling the turf using one of our walk-behind Dennis G860 mowers and noticed that the surface felt harder than normal, which was unusual for a Fibrelastic pitch."
Seeking advice from Dave Healey, Luke peeled back a strip of turf and discovered an anaerobic black layer of compacted soil and organic matter immediately below the surface. The layer was both impeding drainage and reducing the cushioning effect provided by the polypropylene and elastane fibres incorporated within the Fibrelastic rootzone.
"It came as a bit of a shock," he said. "I had thought that our pitch was virtually infallible, but the high levels of use that autumn for both football and rugby had created a layer of impenetrable compaction. It highlighted dramatically the need for similarly high levels of regular remedial treatment to maintain turf condition and playability over winter."
At the first opportunity, in early spring 2012, Luke carried out a mini-renovation of the pitch, solid-tining the turf to a depth of 120mm and overseeding with a perennial ryegrass mix. The operation saw the pitch through to the end of the season when major renovations were undertaken by Sheffield-based sports turf contractor, Premier Pitches.
Commencing in June with a total grass kill, the firm then fraise-mowed the pitch to a depth of between 10mm and 15mm and applied 140 tonnes of Fibresand (silica sand reinforced with polypropylene fibres) across the entire playing surface. Power harrowing followed to create a friable, open seedbed before raking and rolling to level and firm the surface prior to seeding.
"The grass take was brilliant, providing an excellent start for the new season," commented Luke, adding that the eight to ten week "rest" period between the end of one season and the start of the next was the most important time of the year from his viewpoint.
"I want to achieve a maximum rooting depth of around 200mm during the summer months," he said. "From experience, this will enable the turf to better withstand and recover from the pressures applied during a long playing season."
Used as and when needed, the stadium's irrigation system plays an important role in helping get newly-seeded grass plants well established, whilst regular aeration, both in and out of season, ensures that air, water and nutrients are able to reach the roots.
During the summer, Luke uses his TerraSpike GXi 8 HD every two to three weeks to keep the surface and rootzone open and free-draining, never going deeper than 180mm to ensure that the 10mm solid tines stay well above the undersoil heating pipes laid 250mm below the surface.
In drier weather, the TerraSpike, fitted with 19mm tines, may be used to loosen the ground to depth ahead of a Sisis Javelin Aer-Aid 1500 vertical-action air injector, which fissures the soil profile with minimal surface disturbance down to a maximum depth of 130mm.
Winter pitch aeration, says Luke, is carried out according to level of use. "On average, I will be aiming to aerate every two to three weeks using the TerraSpike fitted with 19mm solid tines," he explained. "I don't want to overdo it, but need to ensure there is no re-occurrence of the black layer episode of late 2011."
"For that reason, aeration depths are varied across a range between 80mm and 200mm each time I do it. Results have been successful, keeping the pitch in consistently good shape despite the high rainfall experienced in this part of the world."
Main pitch remedial work commenced in late May 2013 with fraise-mowing, cultivations and topdressing with Fibresand and a 14:3:8+TE pre-seeding fertiliser prior to sowing with a perennial ryegrass sports mixture.
Luke applied a post-emergence 16:16:16 granular fertiliser in June to give turf growth a "massive kick", and has tailored granular and liquid nutrient applications during the summer and winter months according to the weather and the health, colour and vigour of the grass - assisted by an annual soil test.
"Having achieved the required winter grass colour, a 12:0:11 fertiliser will be used towards the end of every second or third week so that nutrients become available to the turf when it needs them most, immediately following a match," explained Luke.
John Deere walk-behind professional roller rotary mowers are employed to clean-up the pitch's surface after games, whilst conventional walk-behind and ride-on rotary mowers are dedicated to maintaining formal and amenity grass areas outside the stadium and for mowing of the training pitch.
Grass height within the stadium is maintained at between 30-32mm for rugby, a little shorter for football, achieved by a pair of Dennis G860 cylinder mowers.
"We normally cut on the morning of a match to produce a precise cylinder finish, plus a good roll of the turf and smart striping," commented Luke, who says he likes to have in his mind a two-week forward plan of jobs that need to be done or completed.
"When I first started as a groundsman, I quickly learned that key to the job is taking pride in one's work and the results achieved," he commented. "I get quite annoyed when asked what I do with myself during the summer when there's no rugby. It's by far my busiest period, but many people I speak with outside work have little idea of the knowledge, skill and effort needed all through the year to create and maintain first-class playing surfaces."
Improving that knowledge is something that Luke remains very keen to achieve for himself, despite the responsibility of looking after a high-profile winter sports pitch and training ground.
Putting aspirations into action, he is now attending a Level 3 Diploma in Work-based Horticulture (Sports Turf) course, travelling to Bridgend College of Further Education every Thursday for a total of sixty-six weeks, spread over two years.
The eighty mile round-trip does, however, give him plenty of time to make plans for the coming two weeks. Although the plans may need to be changed due to poor weather, a sudden disease threat or an unannounced training session, one thing of which Luke is absolutely certain is that a groundsman's job is never done.
Founded in 2003, the Scarlets are affiliated to a number of semi-professional and amateur clubs throughout the area, whilst being the official regional rugby union representative for the west and north of Wales, working closely with the local community
What's in the shed?
Dennis G860 mowers x 2
John Deere R54RKB peestrian roller rotary mowers x 5
John Deere JX90 pedestrian wheeled rotary mowers x 2
John Deere 3520 tractor
John Deere Gator
John Deere 2653B ride-on triple mower
John Deere X155R ride-on mid deck mower with rear collector
Wiedenmann TerraSpike Gxi 8 HD
Sisis Javelin Aer-Aid 1500
Hardi 200 litre tractor-mounted sprayer
Vicon oscillating spout fertiliser spreader
Transfer wheel and spray line markers
Scotts SR2000 pedestrian spreader
Stihl grass trimmer
Stihl hand-held debris blower