Is the Grass Greener at Twickenham?
I've been here a month now and I'm really looking forward to the autumn internationals. I came down by train on the last day of September wondering if I'd done the right thing. With all my baggage I looked like Dick Whittington and as forlorn as Paddington Bear.
The RFU is a big organization, a lot of people work here. They run not only Twickenham but the whole of English rugby. I was probably a bit naive in that respect. The first four or five days were spent meeting people - too many to remember them all.
On my second day England trained at Twickenham, so I was introduced to Clive Woodward for the first time and to my amazement, the players in turn. Clive Woodward mentioned that I'd come from Old Trafford - he must have read about it in the press - and one of the players started hissing. Apparently he was a Manchester City supporter. They get everywhere, don't they?
I watched them train, and noticed how different it is to football, which is short and sharp. An hour and a half and off you go. Rugby is a lot more intense - they worked on strategy, on defence, on attack, and on line outs.
The game is split up - attack and defence. I found it fascinating - very well organized, very professional and done in a way via little or no contact so there weren't any injuries. No running mauls, rucks or scrummages, playing tag rugby and, if anyone went down, they had to give the ball up.
Also, you begin to realise how big rugby players are in comparison to footballers, and how fit they are. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Of course I was particularly interested to see how the pitch played. The pitch had been re-done a year last summer with fibresand
Although the team weren't doing scrums etc. they were doing a lot of side checking which can do damage - shearing and root breaking. But I was pleased to note it didn't happen. It played extremely well, hardly any divots and not much by way of indentations either.
The England team have since trained twice more.
From a pitch maintenance point of view I've just increased the fertiliser programme a bit because I felt it was lacking in nutrition. The lovely warm October weather has helped a great deal from Manchester to London, what a change, may as well be the Canaries!
It's nice to get on with so much and to have the time. It's quite a contrast for me. Not having so many games allows you to plan a strategy of where you're aiming for and what you're going to do.
Whereas, in Premier League football, you're doing it on a week to week basis. Not exactly a knee jerk reaction, but you have to plan a strategy around matches that are coming thick and fast. And you are also up against the weather, especially in the north west.
That experience has stood me in good stead because I have had time to see how things react. It's a new environment, a new stadium for myself. Three sides - north, east and west - are massive, and the proposed south sand will be massive as well!
It's been a good start, and I'm really looking forward to the New Zealand game. The three opening Internationals couldn't get any bigger or better - England v New Zealand on the 9th November, England v Australia on the 16th, and England v South Africa on the 23rd. Three tremendous games.
I'm not saying I'm the world's most knowledgeable rugby fan, but I've always enjoyed the Six Nations. If United were playing away I would always watch the England games because of the atmosphere, because of the event.
When you're a Groundsman, it's nice to say you've been to a lot of events. I've been very fortunate, with United obviously, but I've also been to Wembley, Hampden, Wimbledon for the tennis and Old Trafford for the cricket. I've seen a lot of big sporting occasions and this is something else - another one for the portfolio.
I've asked questions about things that only the old Groundsman could have answered, someone who's lived the stadium at the time. I'm grateful to Ian for being such a good No 2; he's never held anything back or not wanted to impart any information to me. We've already got a good working relationship and he says he enjoys learning new things from me.
Good Groundsmanship is all about creating a team. At United, with the stadium and training grounds, we had four different sites, but any member of the staff could work on any of them, and work together well. That is one of my initial priorities here at Twickenham.
My role here is still evolving. There are a lot of things going to happen - the development of the stadium, the development of Team England. The RFU wants to be in a position to help other clubs, to give advice, to give assurances, to be a user friendly organization.
My own role is likely to develop into being a pitch advisor, passing on information and expertise, because I do have a lot of experiences of working in stadiums.
It has been scientifically proved that you can't grow grass inside Old Trafford, so it's the way you mentally approach the situation. It's not the end of the world if you re-turf. The money is put in the budget, you get your heads round it and go for it. As long as everybody accepts it, there is not a problem. The problem arises when someone in the press wants to be mischievous - the world's richest club the world's worst pitch. It doesn't work like that.
Which is why the RFU wanted me to come here. We've got the proposed new south stand which, if it is approved, is going to be mind blowing. It's would have a 200 room hotel on the front, and the stand itself will hold 19,000 seats.
Twickenham will then have worse shade problems than Old Trafford. However, we are going to look at all the different systems available, but always knowing we cannot provide the light. At this time, 2002, we do not have the knowledge to get large scale grass areas to grow under fluorescent lamps or infra red rays. The knowledge and logistics are just not there.
There are lots of people working on it and perhaps, in 3 or 4 years time we may get a breakthrough but, in the meantime, I will be watching and learning how other things work. There are a couple of systems on the market which really interest me - the West Ham experience with the sub-air which can provide wind movement, brilliant drainage and warmth if it needs to. I can provide the nutrients. Moisture, nutrient and warmth - the only thing we can't provide is the light.
Another system that springs to mind is the ITM (Integrated Turf Management) system. We have a lot more room here than at Cardiff. Perhaps, in 2 years time, we might be moving the modules in 6` squares rather than 1m squares. A lot of things could happen in the interim and I'll just try to keep myself up to speed.
If it is the case that we are unable to grow grass in one area and, following autumn internationals like this year, a third of the pitch needs re-turfing, then so be it. It could be that we may also have to re-turf the other end after the spring internationals. Again, so be it. I will do whatever it takes to help improve the pitch.
The Secretary at Manchester United, Ken Merritt once said to me "If you improve the pitch by one half of one percent, that will help Man United." If I can improve Twickenham by one half of one percent then that will help England. And that makes me feel very proud.
On a separate note, I would like to congratulate the lads at Old Trafford on their internal promotions. Keith Porter as the new Head Groundsman, Joe Pemberton as Deputy in charge at the Carrington training ground and Tony Sinclair, Deputy in charge at Old Trafford. I took these lads on and it fills me with a great sense of achievement that they have been chosen to carry on the tasks at such a major club.Both Joe and Tony came on YTS, fifteen years ago, and their willingness to learn and work as part of the team have proved their worthiness to hold these new appointments. Keith came from Wigan in 1999 to become my deputy at the training ground, he has done an excellent job there and I wish them all well.