Neville Johnson went to one of the country's newest football stadiums just months before it breaks new ground as the first to stage a Rugby World Cup game. It's an impressive venue and very pleasing on the eye, both inside and outside. Championship rather than Premiership standing at present, rightly did nothing to dissuade its choice as a venue. It has a Head Groundsman, in Steve Winterburn, who is so ready for the challenge too
It's nearly 200 years since schoolboy William Webb Ellis 'picked up the ball' during a game of football and ran with it at Rugby School, supposedly setting it rolling for Rugby Union. When either South Africa or Japan kick off the first Pool B match in the 2015 Rugby World Cup on September 19th at Brighton and Hove Albion's American Express Community Stadium, the game he started will, in a way, be getting back to its roots. Two teams on a football pitch will be competing to progress in a tournament, with a trophy bearing the founder of rugby's name, the prize. "Funny old game", the 19th century clergyman who allegedly changed the shape of winter pitch games might say.
The Rugby World Cup is the greatest prize in Rugby Union and has been contested every four years since 1987. It is controlled by World Rugby, formerly known as the International Rugby Board. This year's World Cup is in the hands of England Rugby 2015, based, not surprisingly, at Twickenham and set up specifically to organise the tournament.
England Rugby 2015 said, at the outset, that they would balance getting maximum ticket revenue with reaching new audiences for the game.
There were eyebrows raised by traditionalists though when a match schedule, featuring just four traditional rugby grounds, was announced last year.
All told, there will be forty-eight matches played and sixteen of them will be at football grounds, the first two at Brighton's Amex. The City of Manchester Stadium, St James Park Newcastle, Elland Road, Villa Park, Leicester City's King Power Stadium and Stadium MK at Milton Keynes are the others, but it is Brighton where football stages its first rugby kick-off. On this spring day, and after the rigours of 75% of the season, it looked immaculate, ready for any big match - football or rugby. For the record, of the original list of seventeen stadiums originally under consideration, those at Coventry City, Bristol City, Derby County, Southampton and Sunderland missed the cut.
When I asked Head Groundsman Steve Winterburn why Brighton was chosen, he said that geography and infrastructure were big factors, as was the stadium's excellent crowd facilities. Surely though, the quality of the surface he produces made a big tick in the appropriate box? He smiled and modestly said that his was as good as others in the reckoning.
The organisers had always aimed to spread the tournament around the country and, in the Pool stages, take it beyond its heartlands. In the south, the Amex was one they had looked at from the start. After several visits, a final decision to include it as a venue was made about a year ago.
England Rugby 2015 CEO, Debbie Jevans, who was Director of Sport for the 2012 London Olympics, has vowed that this Rugby World Cup will be "an accessible tournament, open to all". The strong underlying aim within rugby is to do the utmost to grow the home game.
Both the Pool B games at the Amex, the aforementioned Springboks v Japan clash and the following day's between Samoa and the USA, have long been sold out. That's 31,000 twice over and, apparently, there were over 280,000 ticket applications, which says a lot about the stadium's pulling power.
Steve is every ounce an Albion man; a supporter since a boy and now in charge of its wonderful stadium pitch. The club is in his blood. He cares about it.
Things for Steve and the club have changed dramatically in recent years.
Since the demise of its beloved Goldstone Ground, sold to forestall debts in 1997, the club went into exile for thirteen seasons, first and briefly sharing Gillingham's Priestfield, then as tenants at Brighton and Hove City Council's Withdean Stadium. After lengthy and difficult planning hurdles in 2011, it finally moved into its stylish new home on the east side of Brighton, whose City status since the Millennium surely deserved such a sleek sporting venue.
Steve's been in the turf industry about twenty-five years. His career began in landscaping and then at the East Sussex National Golf Course where, for two years, he was an assistant greenkeeper, and he proudly recalls having the privilege of cutting the final three greens at the 1992 European Open.
After spells in grounds maintenance at private schools in the area, he moved on to be a groundsman at the University of Sussex, eventually becoming head groundsman there. At this time, in the mid 1990s, when still at the Goldstone, Brighton and Hove Albion was using the University's pitches for training and Steve became quite close to the inner workings of the club, and remained so as it entered its homeless years.
The move to the Withdean in 1999 was pivotal for Steve. He left his job at the University that year and was, soon after, taken on by the Albion as a permanent pitch consultant to monitor and assist with pitch conditions, but with the Council still doing the actual pitch work.
"The club's Board wanted to make sure money was being used wisely," said Steve. "The Withdean was a shady and cold spot for a Football League pitch. Decent surface conditions were difficult to achieve."
Steve was appointed club head groundsman at the end of 2001 and was in charge of the Withdean pitch maintenance regime - initially with Council grounds team support - until Brighton's move to the Amex. Officially, he's now Head of Grounds Maintenance, but he still prefers the 'ring' of Head Groundsman. He has three full-timers working with him, based at the Amex; Nigel King, his Amex deputy, Tom Bilton and Ryen Teague. A further twelve full-time ground staff are based at the club's training facility and academy at Lancing, west of Brighton, where Steve is also in charge of pitch and grounds maintenance.
As we walk across the pitch now in his care, we talk about the impending rugby challenge. "I must say, I'm very pleased that the matches are in September," he said. "Growth and recovery are at their peak."
"The Football League - and the Premier League, as far as I know - are hopefully working to avoid scheduling a home fixture too close to Rugby World Cup games for those of us staging them."
The Amex pitch is Fibrelastic and it was installed by contractors Kestrel.
"Originally, when the stadium was at planning stage, the idea was to have a fibresand pitch to give stability and good drainage," said Steve.
"Then Mansfield Sand comes up with Fibrelastic, designed to help provide more give in the surface and hence better for player impact."
"I researched the product, checking installations at Newcastle's St James and Glasgow Rangers' Ibrox, which interested me particularly because they were using the same grass and lighting rigs intended for the Amex. I recommended its installation and I'm pleased to say it's done a great job for us."
"I think too that the Rugby World Cup organisers like the fact that the surface here is reinforced, but without protruding material. Personally, I think it's a level up on fibresand for player comfort."
Steve has very specific ideas about grass seed and, looking around, it clearly works.
"On a culture of rye, I think it's a good idea to have a blend of seven or eight cultivars to ensure a combination of fast germination, disease resistance, good colour, and wear tolerance, so I use both a perrenial ryegrass and dwarf ryegrass mixture."
A conference at Twickenham last November, ahead of and after the England-South Africa match, was held for all the hosting venues' head groundsmen to run through all the Rugby World Cup pitch objectives. The man in charge of Twickenham's playing surface, Keith Kent, took the lead.
"We went through a draft programme of how pitches should be presented, including dimensions, mowing patterns, height of cut and, for us football groundsmen, removing football lines and putting in rugby ones," said Steve. "It was so interesting and valuable to see, at first hand, how Keith and his team dealt with pre and post-match pitch matters for the South Africa international. The main aim of this first get-together was to set about achieving a uniformity of quality. We were all in it together from the word go."
There have been several meetings since, and there are more to come.
World Cup England 2015 has appointed testing and research specialists, LaboSport, and independent agronomists, Professional Sportsturf Design, to oversee the tournament playing surfaces and carry out pitch testing in the run-up to the tournament. Steve says that they have been to the Amex to make soil tests, but are very much leaving him in charge of preparations.
Steve and his team were getting a public dress rehearsal on March 20 with the staging of an Under-20 6-Nations England v France match. Sky Sports cameras were there for this first ever rugby match at the Amex. The occasion was, perhaps, more significant than the score. International rugby on an English football ground had happened.
The sockets for the rugby posts were put in last summer as part of the annual renovation work. Contractors dug two metres down and the sockets were set 100mm beneath the turf surface and capped. The caps were removed for the first installation of rugby posts at the Amex three days ahead of the Under-20 international in March.
To install the posts, there's an attachment which fits on to the ROPS of the tractor. The posts lie on top of the rollbar, through a roller system, and the tractor reverses to hoist the aluminium 17-metre high, hinged posts, supplied by Harrod UK. The job of erecting them was 100% in the hands of the Amex team. Steve had had some experience of erecting rugby posts, though by another method, in his days as the University head groundsman. There was just a tinge of apprehension, but it was a 100% successful operation.
Pitch length for both the Under-20 match and the World Cup games is set at 95 metres, goal line to goal line. In accordance with RFU ruling, the grassed run-off to the dead ball line for the Under 20 match was five metres, but will be extended to six to meet World Cup stipulations. Having room to achieve this was another of the factors in venue selection.
The non-playing area surrounding the whole of the pitch had to be upgraded to meet IRIB 22 regulation for 3G surfacing. The Rugby World Cup's contractor, McCardle, replaced the existing carpet beyond the touchlines and dead ball lines with a compliant one ahead of the Under 20 match.
Steve uses Richard Gibbs for agronomic advice and he goes to the Amex regularly to take soil samples. Since it was confirmed that the stadium was to be a Rugby World Cup venue, he has concentrated on checking that the profile has not shifted and, in particular, to make sure there is consistency and stability in the top four inches of Fibrelastic.
As things stand, unless anything abnormal shows up in late season testing, normal renovation is planned for the end of May and Steve will be going for shallow fraise mowing surface removal, as usual.
Steve says the organisers are definitely not breathing down his neck. They are not insisting that Steve calls upon their consultants for help or guidance, but the link is there if he needs it.
"They are very much letting me do my own thing," he said. "Sure, their consultants are keeping a watch on things. I'd expect that. They simply want to make sure nothing untoward occurs. It's just a safeguard. I have no plans and there's no pressure on me to do anything special at all. I'm just sticking to my normal end of season work."
As far as final pre-match preparation is concerned, weather at the time will obviously play a big part, though Steve would be pretty unlucky to get extreme conditions in September. Nearer the time, he'll prepare a four-day countdown schedule of detailed work ahead of each game. He has a pool of six match day staff normally called in for home match routines, and this will stay the same. In the unlikely event of significant bad weather, he could always draft in ground staff from the club's Lancing training ground pitches to assist with works.
There will have to be a bit of an adjustment to the feeding programme to suit the temporary switch from football to rugby. Steve favours Primo Maxx and the control of top growth it gives, and he will continue to use it up to the last football match before the World Cup games. He has to get a cut of 30mm for rugby kick-offs instead of the usual 21mm at that time of year and, he says, he will be talking to Everris about Primo applications up to this short-term need for extra sward height, so the effect wears off at exactly the right time to achieve this.
"What I need to ensure is that, after the last football game, the grass top growth puts on a spurt," said Steve. "I need to create more stem/leaf. I know that it can be done. It's just a matter of getting the right plan of overall material applications set in readiness."
There will be a morning cut on the two rugby match days, but no watering. Steve will keep a watch on water levels in the soil and probably apply overnight to adjust this if required but, unlike football, there is no desire to create a moist playing surface for ball speed. He has been given a mowing pattern. It differs from what he does for Brighton games, but presents no problem for his team or kit.
He was unable to reveal what the pattern was, but his formidable line-up of mowers would no doubt deliver a handsome surface for the organisers. The 'cutting cast' includes Hybrid Toro Triplex, Dennis G860s and Ransomes Mastiffs, plus Honda rotaries for post-match 'hoovering'. For football at the Amex, early and late season cutting height is 21mm, with a 26mm maximum during the winter months. Thirty millimetres is 'a whole new ball game' for men and machines there.
Steve smiled when asked about tournament logos on the pitch and was happy to say that these would not be his responsibility. He didn't have the details, but they would - if planned - be sprayed on by appointed specialists and removed once the second game is over by high-pressure washing. He had seen the removal process after the England v South Africa match at Twickenham and was impressed how quickly there was no trace remaining on the surface.
Getting back to football doesn't present any anxiety for the club. Being involved in the Rugby World Cup is huge for the club and everyone there is excited about the challenge. The only potential pressure for Steve and his team might come with a mid-week 3rd round home draw in the Capital One Cup immediately afterwards, which is always possible. They took on Arsenal at the Amex this season in a later round, so a money-spinning televised match against a big name and another public close-up view of the pitch could happen.
Although the Rugby Football Union is not directly handling the World Cup, it is anxious to see that the game here makes big strides as a result of it. RFU chief executive Ian Ritchie is desperate that mistakes made after England's 2003 World Cup victory, when the game did not kick on here as much as expected, are not repeated.
Playing matches at Brighton's Amex and the other football stadia will surely bring the game to many more countrywide. On this spring day, months beforehand, you can feel how much it means playing a part in this big national sporting event.