Headingley Stadium was built in the 1880s, with the first game being played on the 20th September 1890. It quickly became the premier sporting venue in Yorkshire and, over the last 143 years, the club has continued to go from strength to strength, not only in terms of sporting achievements, but in the development of its stadium. 1963 saw the installation of undersoil heating, only three years after the first system in Britain was installed at Murrayfield, followed by the installation of floodlights three years later.
More recently, a major renovation included new changing room facilities and the addition of state-of-the-art banqueting suites. The South Stand was refurbished in 2000 for the first time since 1938, followed by the construction of the new Carnegie Stand in 2005, increasing the grounds capacity to 22,500. The Carnegie Stand was developed in partnership with Leeds Metropolitan University, with twelve lecture rooms being incorporated into the building to provide a permanent base for the University's sports related courses over the next fifteen years.
It was also in 2005 that the club began looking into the possibility of replacing the stadium's pitch, which had not been renovated since the undersoil heating was laid in the 1960s.
Out with the old…
After monitoring the surface and assessing the pros and cons of replacing the pitch, it was decided a complete renovation was required and Caddick Construction was appointed as the management company for the project.
"Our role was to project manage the entire pitch construction on behalf of Leeds Rugby, ensuring all tasks were completed correctly and on time. Another of our responsibilities was the appointment of key contractors," explains Neil Murray, the company's Site Manager. "We selected Clive Richardson Ltd (CLR) as our main contractor due to its reputation and experience with similar projects, as well as its strong relationships with a number of suppliers."
Once on board, Clive Richardson worked closely with TGMS Ltd, a sports turf consultancy practice who designed the whole pitch project.
Tim Colclough, Director of Agronomy at TGMS Ltd, whose other clients include Sunderland, Chelsea, and Middlesbrough football clubs, was involved in the pitch design and construction from the very beginning: "We conducted our feasibility studies, including an initial site survey and a comprehensive site assessment a few years ago, so all of the ground work had been completed when we submitted our initial designs. Once the designs had been approved and the other suppliers and contractors selected, the first stage of the project was to lay the drainage system."
The pitch has been designed to be crowned rather than flat, with the pitch centre raised 20cm above the edges, to help aid drainage. In addition to this, 80mm lateral drains have been laid at 4 metre intervals across the pitch, with 160mm collectors being installed around its perimeter. Four inspection chambers were also built into the design to allow easy access to the drainage system for monitoring and maintenance purposes.
"Once the drainage and foundation work was complete, we added a 150mm layer of gravel to the top of the existing subsoil to form the basis for the all important upper layers of the pitch," concludes Tim.
Following the installation of the gravel, sand, and rootzone layers, the original 1960s undersoil heating was replaced by contractors, Ken Pryor & Sons Ltd. Over twenty-six miles of undersoil heating pipes were laid and the new system was first put to the test on Boxing Day 2012, when the pitch was used for the first time in a friendly between Leeds Rhinos and Wakefield Trinity Wildcats.
Pitch perfect, naturally
The responsibility for choosing the best product and supplier for the upper surface level fell to Head Groundsman, Jason Booth, who has worked with for the club for over thirteen years.
"Due to the transparent and 'inclusive' way the club is run I attend all management meetings, together with the Manager, Head Coach and Owner and, as such, I am consulted on all matters concerning the pitch. It meant that, when the time came to replace the pitch, the grounds team was able to advise on the options available and which we believed would be most suitable for the club. After visiting Manchester City Football Club, speaking to them about their Fibresand pitch and seeing how it was managed, we decided a fibre-reinforced surface was definitely the way forward for us," explains Jason.
"With both Leeds Carnegie and Leeds Rhinos playing regular games on the pitch, as well as it being used for small concerts, community games and occasionally as a car park for cricket matches, we needed an exceptionally durable surface."
"After researching the different choices on the market, we concluded that an artificial, or semi-artificial, pitch would not be right for our needs. However, we did feel that a fibre-reinforced surface would be able to withstand anything we threw at it, which is why we chose Fibresand from Mansfield Sand," adds Jason.
Fibresand, a fibre reinforced rootzone, is an 80/20 blend of MM45 medium grade silica sand and topsoil mixed with polypropylene fibre. Its stabilising and free draining properties make it the ideal base for a natural turf pitch.
Mark Robinson, Sports Surface Manager at Mansfield Sand, explains, "Over 2,000 tonnes of MM45 sand was needed to create a 150mm layer sand bed placed on top of a 150mm layer of gravel. A further 1,000 tonnes of fibre reinforced rootzone was then laid using specialist equipment, on which mature, custom grown, reinforced turf was laid, an option Leeds Rugby Club chose for a rapid finish."
The turf chosen was 40mm thick and grown by specialist turf growers, County Turf. This was then laid directly on top of the fibre reinforced rootzone, making it ideal for those projects where there is insufficient time for grass to grow by seeding. The Leeds Rugby pitch grass took County Turf eighteen months to produce, and growing the turf off site gave the club a usable pitch right from the very start of the season.
It's a team effort
It is now the responsibility of Jason, together with his team of two full-time and three apprentice groundsmen, to maintain the new pitch and keep it in top condition. Jason started his sporting career as a professional cricketer before moving into the grounds maintenance industry. "I have worked in the industry for over ten years, but this is the first time I have been involved in the construction of a pitch from the very beginning, and it has been a fantastic learning experience for me and the whole team - it is not often you get to work with so many industry experts and see a pitch being built a layer at a time. It has definitely given us a greater understanding of what goes on underneath the surface, which will hopefully help us to better manage the pitch in the future," says Jason.
The future is definitely bright for Leeds Rugby Club both on and off the pitch. "The club is definitely run as a business, but it is a business with a heart," concludes Jason. "The sport and its employees will always come first, but having no debts is just as important, as it gives everyone involved in the club a sense of security. It also means we can invest in the future - like installing our brand new pitch!"