There's no doubt about it, the game of rugby seriously takes its toll on pitches, presenting a tough job for the grounds teams looking after them. One of the hardest working and successful rugby teams in the UK is Ulster Rugby, based in Belfast. Thanks to a new sponsorship deal, the team play at their recently upgraded and newly christened Kingspan Stadium.
Chris McCullough talks to Head Groundsman, James Laird
The Kingspan Stadium, which is owned by the Irish Rugby Football Union, is located in South East Belfast and houses the administration centre for the game of rugby union in the province of Ulster.
Although the stadium is going through a period of redevelopment, the pitch has not, as yet, been the subject of any immediate upgrade plans.
However, that could change in the future when development of the stands at the Kingspan is completed.
Not only is it the home of Ulster Rugby, the venue also hosts finals of club and school competitions from under 10 mini rugby to the senior clubs final.
Back in August 2007, the ground hosted its first senior Ireland international match in fifty-three years when Ireland took on Italy in a Rugby World Cup warm-up game.
Formerly known as the Ravenhill Ground, the stadium has been maintained well over the years but, in 2008, the first major modernisation took place.
Foundations were laid for a new high-spec corporate stand on the terrace side of the ground which marked phase one of a multi-million pound redevelopment programme.
Built at a cost of £5.5million, the stand opened for business in September 2009, boasting twenty high-spec corporate boxes, 532 premier seats and full bar and restaurant facilities.
Then, in 2010, Ulster Rugby submitted a business case to the Government, requesting funding from the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure to modernise the rest of the grounds by building new stands at the Aquinas and car park ends of the ground and to replace the existing grandstand.
A total of £14.7 million funding was secured in November 2012 and construction work started immediately. This was completed in the summer of 2014. Three new stands were built in a phased approach that saw capacity rise from 11,400 to 18,000.
The stadium was officially opened on Friday 2nd May 2014 in a ceremony that saw former players return and Johann Muller cut a ribbon as he ran onto the field in the midst of a grand show of fireworks.
In June 2014, Ulster Rugby signed a ten year agreement with the Kingspan Group, a leading provider of sustainable building materials, for the naming rights to the stadium.
The agreement will result in significant investment for the game of rugby at all levels within the Province.
Later this year, the new Nevin Spence Centre will open at the ground. The heritage and education centre is named in memory of a young Ulster Rugby centre who died in 2012 following a tragic farm accident.
The pitch itself has certainly taken somewhat of a beating over the years and the grass does not get much chance to grow, but Head Groundsman James Laird says he is winning the battle.
Coming from a family that specialises in groundscare equipment, backed up with the knowledge gained from studying at Greenmount Agricultural College, James is well placed for the tough job.
He has worked at the stadium for the past five years and is enjoying the challenge immensely.
James said; "My dad is a salesman for ground maintenance equipment, so I was familiar with the industry from a young age, and I used to make my pocket money cutting gardens at the weekends when I was at school."
"Thanks to the experience gained from the gardens, I knew this was the direction I wanted to pursue a career in and decided to apply for a horticulture course at the local Greenmount Agricultural College in Antrim."
"During my studies at the college, I also worked in various jobs in the industry from garden centres to landscaping."
"I successfully completed the National Diploma in Horticulture at the college. This detailed course covered various modules, including sportsturf management, and taught me the basics in this area."
"It was a great experience at the college and the course set me up for the career which I have today," he said.
As head groundsman, James controls the purse strings of the Ulster Rugby pitch maintenance budget. "To a certain extent, I am responsible for what is spent but, over and above the norm and for larger proposals, I report to the stadium manager or financial controller with an explanation of how it is going to benefit the stadium."
As the stadium itself is in the middle of a renovation project, it is hoped funding can be allocated to the pitch in the future. In the meantime, James and his crew look after the pitch the best they can.
However, with the harshness and unpredictable Northern Ireland weather, his job can throw up some challenges from time to time.
James has help from three other staff members who have been working at the stadium, one of whom has been there for one year and the other two for four and five years.
The team are responsible for the day to day care of the pitch but, where specialist work is required, James has access to outside contractors who come in for commissioned work. "Our contractors include Clive Richardson and Haffey Sports Grounds who have been topdressing and hollow coring for the past few years at the stadium. We use them when needed, and both are specialists in their own fields."
As the popular rugby stadium is situated in a heavy residential area of Belfast, there was not much room for expanding outside the pitch and grounds to allow for any problems, and James and his team have to try and manage the grass under some difficult circumstances with the presence of the new stands.
"With the new stands now developed on all sides of the pitch, we have been experiencing flooding in certain areas," said James. "Drainage probably wasn't considered as much as it should have been when designing the new stands."
"At one end of the pitch, the high stand results in a huge shaded area, which does not help with grass growth in that particular zone. We have also had issues with heavy snowfall and frost in the past, even in this part of the city."
However, the team have a remedy for helping with the typical Northern Irish weather and the problems associated with it. "We have frost sheets which are used for both frost and snow, as we can shovel the snow off the sheets without damaging the playing surface."
"During wet spells, I verti-drain more regularly. Even though there's no drainage system at present, there will still be considerable benefit in the opening up and de-compacting of the soil structure to allow oxygen in to feed the roots."
"We are hoping to enhance the pitch with new drainage, undersoil heating and an irrigation system in the future," confirms James. "This should help with the problems we are currently facing in some areas of the pitch."
James and his team work to a specific maintenance regime each week, as well as certain tasks being carried out on a less regular schedule.
The grass is cut at 35mm around two or three times a week, depending on the weather and grass growth, using a Toro 3100 Sidewinder.
Every six to eight weeks, they will use either a verti-drain on the pitch or slitting; "whatever is required." A verticutter is used from May to the end of the season.
James added: "Sometimes, when the pitch is looking a bit bare, we bring out the Moore Uni-drill to sow a bit more seed. Again, we do this when required, which usually amounts to three times per year."
"We also have a tractor mounted sprayer to apply liquid feed six to eight times a year and to help with weed and pest control when needed."
"Pitch marking is usually carried out twice a week, when fixtures are frequent, using a spray line marker."
During every event and match, presentation is an important consideration for James and the staff. "Presentation is our number one priority, not just for the pitch, but the entire stadium. My team and I are responsible for this at every event and match."
When the rugby playing season is over, the team take a step back and assess what repair or further maintenance work needs to be carried out on the pitch.
This year, James and his team have big plans on how to improve the playing surface. "Usually, we scarify, hollow core, topdress and overseed, but this year we intend to remove the surface, till the soil and reseed," he confirmed. "That should improve the ground significantly, leaving us with a much better surface for the next season."
As part of ongoing testing of the grounds, James has taken soil samples for the past three years in order to ascertain exactly what the pitch needs in terms of nutrients.
The Ulster Rugby staff are hoping for a bigger development of the pitch. "We are working towards a new pitch in the near future, with a new surface, adequate drainage, irrigation and undersoil heating. I think a new pitch would complete the redevelopment project and really make Kingspan an exceptional stadium fit for purpose."
What's in the shed?
Toro 3100-D Reelmaster
Major Rotary Deck
Kubota L4240 tractor and loader
John Deere Gator
Sisis Litamina Sweeper
When it comes to machinery, the stadium policy is to look for the best deal from a number of local dealers.
"The buying policy usually depends on reliability and price of the machine," said James."
"All servicing is also based on price, but usually local dealers such as Laird Grass Machinery Ltd, PA Nesbitts and Kens Engineering carry out all our work for us."
In the future, James would like to add a few more machines to the growing portfolio. These include a Toro 648 Aerator, Toro 3100 and a Kubota RTV.