0 Rovers Return?

Jake Barrow reports that rugby league fans in Featherstone are preparing yet again for a possible promotion to top-tier Super League. And when one talks about the rugby league fans in Featherstone, they mean everyone in this heartland town of just 16,000.

And chairman Mark Campbell has been preparing his grounds team accordingly. When he brought Chris Drury in to manage the now mid-sized team in February 2016, some had their doubts about the state of the playing field.

Less than a year down the line, it looks and feels firm enough for the hard-hitting sport, even after two weeks of showers.

But it will need to be as good, or ideally better, soon enough. Rovers, at the time of writing, stand third in the Championship table.

And this, the second year after Super League's re-introduction of a promotion and relegation system, is a little different to the 2016 season, when Rovers also made the play-offs. Perennial Championship dominators Leigh Centurions, the thorn in the side of every other title hopeful in the league, are already promoted. This leaves the second tier anyone's to claim.

Although the club hasn't been a super-brand in recent years, it won the old Championship (the top-tier equivalent of Super League today) in 1977, as well as their most recent Challenge Cup a not-so-historical thirty-four years ago.

This represents several generations of supporters who can remember its glory days vividly, and the older of them will even remember 1957, when the same ground at Post Office Road hosted 17,000 fans in a match against St Helens in its supposedly 10,000-capacity stands.

Since 2008, there have been unofficial rumblings of a move to another ground, although there is no suggestion of this from the staff, and could simply be speculative.

Its necessity may also have been mooted in 2014, when stands were purchased from Scarborough FC's McCain Stadium and installed into the previously terraced Railway End.

This was so unusual, because it was a task undertaken by a group of fans nicknamed 'The Stand Gang', who did so unpaid, purely due to dedication to the club.

The effect this also had was that more ground was now available due to the lengthening of the stands, which meant the pitch could also be extended. So, at last, the turf was upgraded from a 70-metre stretch to a full and appropriate 100 metres. Luckily for the club, this would be expected anyway were they to achieve that promotion.

The 2017 squad looks good. This club has always had some pull to players of certain ages, being the once-home of names such Paul Newlove and Vince Farrar.

Anthony Thackeray currently provides a firm base in the spine, whilst they've brought in pacey ex-Super League talent in the form of Frankie Mariano. This is all complemented by the influential presence of ex-England coach and ex-Huddersfield Head Coach Jon Sharp.

And for some of the most successful teams, come the end of the season, the Million Pound Game awaits - the play-off final named after the vast sums of money it can bring to those who earn promotion through it. A club can buy more than a few grass cutters with that kind of cash.

The club has strong ties with those nearby. Chris, the Head Groundsman, stresses to me that his hometown club, Leeds Rhinos, do everything they can to support the smaller clubs in the area. They provide Featherstone (or 'The Fev') with dual registration options, for example. And, even closer, Wakefield Trinity use The Fev's training facilities.

Chris runs a team of three others: Rob Smith, Jordan Sayles - on a work experience placement from his nearby college - and Michael Knowles.

Michael, in the spirit of small town sports, is both a player and groundsman. At the very least, he has a good familiarity with his playing surface.

Jordan, meanwhile, is undertaking the NVQ Level 2 in Sports Turf Management, and all of the youngsters are completing spraying certificates, and Chris says this is important to him as an employer:

"We will be doing this sort of thing moreso from now on. It won't be long before we take on our first full-time apprentice, because that way you get people who care about the job first, and the sport second, rather than the other way around."

When Mark Campbell approached Chris last year, during Chris' stint as a free agent, he told him that he wanted 'to be proud of his pitch, as he was of his club'. Chris was an experienced groundsman at a high level, having worked for both Leeds United and Yorkshire Cricket Club.

When asked, he can quickly name several people who have inspired him and acted as mentors, which he says is characteristic of the industry. He elaborates that, as well as fielding a strong sense of community, he also thinks it is in a good state generally:

"I think through magazines like Pitchcare, but also through Twitter etc., the industry is working very close together nowadays."

"It helps the smaller clubs get in touch with the bigger clubs, and it helps groundsmen too. Like I've said before, the way things are allows the club's bond with Leeds [Rhinos] to be so strong."

"Sometimes, turfcare staff can be undervalued, but that's not the case here. And all the good things like this stem from that community feel. This is a community club. Featherstone Women play here, the foundation run courses here; this is a community stadium."

His mentors have included Keith Boyce who, thirty-three years ago, accepted him for a trial at Yorkshire Cricket Club while Keith was in charge of the pitch there, as well as John Reynolds and Norman Summerwood, who were both Head Groundsmen at Leeds United FC.

John, as a long-time and clearly passionate Leeds Rhinos fan, evidently enjoyed his time with Leeds, but is also now relishing the change of pace that comes with moving to a smaller club, to a less active ground.

When he moved to Fev not long after his post at Leeds, there had been drainage issues ongoing, it being a surface of heavy, clay-based soil, and a new head was needed to attack them. He was granted responsibility for budgeting and the long-term plan of action.

There had been attempts to permanently solve the drainage problem before, but they were largely unsuccessful. When exploring it, he found that the drainage system was incomplete, in that the drains themselves didn't go as far as they needed to, or end properly.

Having used the usual techniques as often as possible to stave off waterlogging, which appears to be working well, he now thinks he may be able to extend those drains to achieve that permanent solution:

"That's going to be our next major project, and will take up most of the budget. Once that's sorted, we can start to think about whether other projects need doing."

In the meantime, the team borrows waterproof sheets from local firm JMS, Verti-drains and ProCores (varying from 150-200mm) at regular intervals, and aerates with the 'Big Willy' pedestrian spiker. They then cut using the Dennis G860 mower, down to 32mm in the winter, and 25mm in summer.

They also have links with Lawnmower Planet and the Russell Group, with the former both providing much of their equipment and maintenance services during their lifespan.

Other suppliers include Complete Weed Control and Simon Race at Vale, who deal with spraying, and Prestige, who fulfilled a contract in late 2016, which included topdressing and seeding.

The club is looking right on course for another year of the excitement that comes with play-off rugby league. In the past year, it's easy to tell by the way the staff talk about it; the pitch has come on dramatically.

Their hope is that this time next year, with the completed drainage system in place, it will be worthy of Super League rugby and will have the chance to showcase some too.

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