Even with the Rugby Football Union offering considerable assistance to rugby clubs the length and breadth of Britain, pitch standards are in decline.
Why is this, when funding and support is available? Is too much emphasis being put on bar takings and shower facilities at the expense of the club's most important asset - their pitch?
Or is it because the smaller clubs just don't have the necessary staff or knowledge to undertake regular maintenance practices?
I have played and coached rugby at various levels over many years and I am still amazed, particularly in this day and age, to find many club pitches in such a poor state - compacted, under fed, weed infested and poorly presented when it comes to mowing and marking out.
It seems that the pitch is often the last priority and, in many cases, clubs do not have adequate resources for either machinery or personnel to maintain them effectively.
Without properly presented playing conditions how can a club effectively promote the skills of the game and attract new players?
The RFU are constantly trying to raise the quality of facilities and have introduced a number of funding initiatives to assist clubs. This money is usually directed into upgrading changing rooms, clubhouses, floodlights, new pitches and improved drainage schemes.
However, the system does not cater for ongoing maintenance. And this is where it fails. Individual clubs are left to arrange their own funding and resources for ongoing maintenance; many do not have the knowledge, expertise or the inclination to understand the level of maintenance that is required for their pitches.
The fact that a club has been given new or improved facilities will generate additional pressure on their pitches - more use, more wear. Pre-match warm ups, even at junior level, will see teams spending anything up to an hour working out on the pitch before a game.
The net result of this, together with the lack of maintenance, leads to a steady decline in pitch quality until it becomes unplayable or just downright unsafe. Many clubs struggle to get their pitches cut and marked out on a regular basis let alone complete the other necessary maintenance operations such as feeding, aerating and, more importantly, end of season renovations.
Some clubs still use unsafe marking material to mark out their pitches, such as creosote and hydrated lime, both banned by the sports governing body. Players can receive terrible skin burns from these substances; clubs should only be using approved water based marking fluids.
When it comes to mowing I have seen it all - from blunt cylinders and rotary blades that tear the grass to towing gang mowers with cars! Pitch surface quality is determined by the frequency of cut and the condition of the mower being used. Pitches should be mowed at least twice a week during the peak growing season of April through to September and weekly for the remainder of the year. During the playing season the grass should be maintained at a height of between 30-75 mm. Any longer and the grass will get flattened and become weak.
Also, many clubs have the notion that once the season finishes they do not need to mow the grass until the beginning of the playing season. This results in grass that is left too long, which subsequently weakens the sward.
Another common problem seen on pitches is compaction. Over time the soil's air pore spaces become compressed resulting in the pitch becoming hard and not able to drain freely after rain. This results in the surface remaining adversely wet; soil, when wet, is easily destructed by play resulting in loss of grass cover and stability. In addition, compacted soil prevents the grass plant from functioning, reducing its ability to promote adequate root and shoot growth to maintain plant health.
Once in stress the plant will weaken and die back resulting in the loss of ground cover which, in turn, allows weeds to establish. A programme of regular aeration will prevent a pitch from becoming compacted and will aid surface water drainage.
Two other operations that are seldom carried out by clubs are regular weeding and feeding. It is important to choose an appropriate product for your needs. Ideally, clubs should have a soil analysis carried out to ascertain what soil type they have, its nutrient status, pH and organic matter levels. Armed with this information clubs will be better equipped to make the right choice of fertiliser products for their pitch. Often, clubs tend to use either the wrong product or a cheap one that invariably fails to promote or sustain plant growth.
Finally, before we get on to the subject of end of season renovations, one of the biggest failings of clubs is the lack of appropriate machinery to undertake the above tasks. Clubs buy or acquire machinery that is inadequate for the task or unreliable in its performance. It is important that the club has the right equipment for its needs; the choice of equipment will be determined by number of factors:
The size and scale of the operations required at the club, how many pitches they have to maintain
- The level of usage
- Finances the club have at their disposal
- The knowledge and experience of the groundstaff
- Secure garage and storage space available
- Appropriate levels of equipment servicing
As a basic minimum a club should have, or have access to, a good quality rotary mower, a tractor for attachments including a harrow/spring rake and spiker/aerator, fertiliser spreader and line marker.
End of season renovations
This is one area that needs to be addressed. After a long and arduous season many pitches are in need of some tender loving care which, in many cases, rarely happens. Therefore, the pitch quality declines year after year until it becomes so bad it is in need of a major overhaul. This can cost a substantial amount of money. Ideally, end of season renovations should consist of the following operations:
- Cleaning the surface by mowing the sward down to 25 mm and collecting the arisings.
- Scarifying the sward to remove unwanted thatch
- Decompacting the soil profile with the use of deep tine or linear aeration techniques.
- Once decompacted the pitch can then be topdressed with a compatible top dressing, usually an approved washed sports sand or a blended 70/30 or 80/20 sand soil mix, applying 80 tons per pitch. The topdressing helps restore levels and provides a bed for the seed to germinate.
- The pitch should then be oversown using a selected grass seed mixture at a rate of 35-40 grams per m2.
- Finally, applying a pre-seeding/summer fertiliser to stimulate growth.
All of the above, obviously, come at a cost. Based on a single pitch facility the annual maintenance cost for a contractor to undertake all of the work, including end of season renovations, may cost between £8,000-12,000. This cost would be based around the contractor undertaking the following basic operations:
- Soil testing
- Mowing on a weekly - ten day basis (at least 30 cuts per year)
- Aerating once a month
- Applying three fertiliser treatments
- Applying one dose of selective herbicide
- Harrowing/brushing twice a month (when conditions allow)
- Marking out for matches (based on 30 matches)
- End of season renovations.
Hiring a contractor just for the end of season renovations is likely to cost in the region of £3,000-4,000 per pitch. This would include materials such as dressings, seed and fertilisers.
However, if a club chose to undertake the majority of the ongoing maintenance activities themselves they would, essentially, only have to pay for materials, machinery servicing and repairs and any appropriate training for staff undertaking spraying activities.
This option could reduce annual costs dramatically to around £3,000-4,000 (for materials), but the club would have to equip themselves with the relevant machinery to undertake the tasks outlined above. The initial cost of this equipment will be dependent on choice of machinery and whether it is new or used.
Once purchased, the machinery, if serviced regularly, will last many years enabling the club to be in complete control of their regular maintenance.
Although mowing will be the biggest task to undertake, feeding, aerating, harrowing and brushing will also be required. Having a tractor at the club is a must. Not only can a tractor be set up to be a dedicated mower it has all the necessary hydraulics to power other implements. A compact tractor fitted with rotary decks may be a good start, 25-48 hp will be sufficient for a small club with 2-4 pitches.
Another option would be to have a dedicated mowing machine such as a ride on cylinder or rotary mower. Professional Groundsmen tend to prefer cylinder mowers to cut their pitches. However, with time being a constraint, ride on or tractor-mounted rotaries are a popular option. Tractor mounted rotary and cylinder mowers offer a wide range of cutting widths, anything between 85-610cm.
The choice and range of equipment is vast. It is important to buy from an approved dealer. They tend to have a wider range of equipment on offer, both new and used. Most leading manufacturers will offer good back up and after sales service on their new equipment, and finance options.
The question many clubs will be asking is, "how do we fund these operations?" Well, it will be all about changing your priorities and initiating new revenue streams:
- Allocate a proportion of member subscriptions to grounds maintenance costs.
- Find sponsors to support the scheme.
- Advertising boards around the ground could be dedicated to the grounds maintenance funds.
- Target club functions such as hog roasts, discos and dinner/dance evenings to raise money for grounds maintenance costs.
- The ever-increasing youth sections could be targeted for funds.
- Hire out the ground for summer events to other clubs and organisations
- Share the ground with other sports users.
If rugby clubs want to retain membership and attract new players and supporters they need to address the problem of poorly maintained pitches.
The cost of pitch maintenance is small when you understand the benefits of providing a quality playing surface. In the long term clubs will see increased player membership, improved skill levels and, if coached well, the chance to improve the status and standing of the club. It really is all about changing the mindset of club officers to understand the needs of a natural grass pitch and the benefits they bring when managed properly.
Please see below links to the RFU Club Management resources and information .
RFU Funding Page :- Funding Schemes
RFU Club Management :-Facility Strategy
RFU Pitch Construction / Maintenance :-Natural Grass Pitches