As a former enthusiastic amateur rugby player, I finally fulfilled my dream of walking on the hallowed turf of Twickenham. Unfortunately, not as a player (maybe there's still a chance to have a run out for the England veterans XV) but as a guest of Head Groundsman, Keith Kent.
Keith had invited me down to see, at first hand, his match day preparations for the last of four consecutive home Tests at RFU headquarters. As part of the Investec Challenge series England had already played the Pacific Islanders, Australia and South Africa (suffering a record home defeat). Today it was the turn of the mighty All Blacks.
The series began on November 8th and Keith and his staff had to cope with four international matches, plus training and practice sessions, in the space of four weeks. That any pitch can stand up to that amount of play is a testament to the skills and experience of the groundstaff.
Keith began his career in groundsmanship in 1970 when he started as a trainee at Leicester City Football Club's Belvoir Drive training ground.
He left Leicester City in 1987 to become Head Groundsman at Old Trafford, a position he held for fifteen years before taking on his present role at Twickenham in 2002, just after a new FibreSand pitch was laid.
Keith has two full time staff; Assistant Head Groundsman, Ian Ayling, who has been at Twickenham for eleven years, and Andy Muir who has been at the stadium for ten years. When required, Keith can also call upon groundsmen from Merchant Taylors School where Ian's brother, Richard, is Head Groundsman. For today's game he is being helped out by MTS's Mike Gammett for some early morning mowing and, of course, yours truly.
During his time at Twickenham, Keith has been involved in several developments, the most recent being the completion of the new South Stand. The ground now has a capacity of 82,000.
The new stand has had a bearing on the way the pitch now needs to be managed. Its sheer size has created more shade and air flow problems, especially during the winter months. The south east corner and the whole length of the west side have been particularly affected.
Keith ensured that, during the construction of the new stand, a number of air vents were installed that could be opened to increase air flow across the pitch
To help counteract these problems, Keith researched the use of lighting rigs and, on his recommendation, the RFU purchased six SGL rigs, two in December 2005 and a further four in September 2006.
Keith confesses that they provided a steep learning curve for himself and his staff but, after much trial and error, they now have a set routine in place that seems to achieve the desired results. This has to take into consideration the daily maintenance regimes, fixtures, training sessions and, most importantly, the weather.
When the schedule allows, some of the areas, those in front of the South stand, have the lighting rigs on for 24 hours a day seven days a week. The other areas have the lights on varying from one to three days a week.
The pitch is constantly under pressure. You could be excused for thinking that the Twickenham pitch only hosts a few international matches each year but, in reality, the pitch is in constant use. As well as the Investec Challenge series the stadium hosted the Varsity match in December plus a couple of senior club matches before having to prepare for the start of the 2009 Six Nations tournament when England host Italy, France and Scotland.
Typically, other fixtures include:
• England Saxons
• England U20s matches
• England U18s matches
• Middlesex Sevens Tournament
• IRB Emirates Sevens
• County Championships
• Daily Mail Schools Championships
• EDF Energy Cup games
• Guinness Premiership matches
• National U17 Tournament
And then there is the small matter of concerts and corporate events to entertain.
As soon as the 2007/08 rugby season finished, the groundstaff undertook renovation work. This included fraise mowing, deep aeration using the RFUs Soil Reliever, and topdressing with Mansfield Sand. The pitch was then oversown with Rigby Taylor R14 and fed with a dose of 12:6:6 NPK fertiliser.
During the growing season the grass was kept at a height of 40mm using Dennis 36" mowers and fed and watered as required. This established a healthy sward coming into the Investec series of matches.
During the build-up to the All Blacks game Keith was pleased with how the pitch had performed, however, an incidence of leaf spot was causing him some concern. The grass plant was yellowing slightly, so he sprayed with a fungicide (Fusion) and implemented a liquid feeding regime to keep on top of it.
With a heavy rain forecast for the All Blacks game Keith took the decision to vertidrain the pitch on Wednesday. He also had to make the pitch available for training sessions for both teams as well as moving the lighting rigs on and off as required.
On Friday, both teams trained on the pitch. England did a full session, including kicking, whilst the All Blacks had a walk about for half an hour with only their kickers doing anything physical.
With up to 15mm of rain forecast for Friday Keith decided to leave the final pitch preparation until the morning of the match.
To ensure I was at Twickenham for an early start on Saturday morning, I arranged to stay the night with Martin Sampson, Head Groundsman at the neighbouring Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School Playing Fields (the school is north of the river in Holland Park). The RFU utilise Martin's grounds for hospitality and parking for over 1000 cars.
At 8.00am I met up with Keith and he ran through the order of the day. We then went to see Ian, Andy and Mike who were busy getting the Honda pedestrian mowers ready. Andy then went on tunnel/changing room duty, so he was excused from mowing.
That left the rest of us to begin the task of mowing the pitch. I had to pinch myself. Here I was mowing the hallowed turf. We followed one another mowing in bands. It took about an hour and half to complete.
For each match a set of three logos are painted on to the pitch. IMG, a company which specialises in this, were putting the final touches to them, filling in with special water based dye.
At 9.30am Ian began the task of line marking, starting on the cross lines and dotted lines before, finally, an hour and a quarter later, marking the touchlines.
With a tea break looming Keith and Mike put the flags out and gave the pitch a final check over. Keith then took me up to level 5 in the new South Stand to get an overview of the pitch from a high vantage point. It looked fantastic.
Once we had completed the pitch preparations we made our way to the players tunnel where we would be based for the duration of the match. Keith had issued me with a Tunnel Pass that allowed me access to the pitch and tunnel areas.
Tunnel staff have a dedicated room, with tea making facilities. Here admin staff control various aspects of the pre-match, match and post match activities.
At midday Keith disappeared to get changed into his collar and tie ready for the match. I had been working in mine since I arrived!
At the same time, Escala, the electric string quartet, shivered their way through rehearsals, and the 'flag waving' ceremony also got a trial run.
Whilst waiting for Keith to return I was introduced to Match Director and ex Leicester Tigers player, Terry Burwell, Stadium Director, Richard Knight, and Match Manager, Tracy Fox-Young, who is responsible for the players requirements, trophies etc. I was also asked to take some photographs of the tag rugby teams who took part in the pre-match entertainment.
At 1.00pm the pre match entertainment begins with a tag rugby game. The ground is slowly filling up.
Whilst this game is in progress the All Blacks arrive and the players walk out to inspect the pitch. England coach, Martin Johnson faces the press who are looking for an improved performance from the home team.
At 1.30pm the players begin their warm up drills. Keith inspects the pitch after the drills to check for any damage.
At 2.00pm the pre-match entertainment and ceremonies begin, including a rousing performance from Escala and more flag waving and patriotism than is seen at most other sporting events.
Quarter of an hour later the players emerge from the changing rooms for the playing of the national anthems. England have to face the fearsome Haka. The now full, and mainly partisan crowd, respond with a loud rendition of Sweet Chariot. It doesn't get sung much again as New Zealand take a 12-3 half time lead.
During half time divots are repaired.
The game kicks off for the second half and, despite England's best endeavours, the All Blacks run out comfortable 32-6 winners.
After the victorious team are presented with the Hillary Shield and all the paraphernalia is put away, Keith and I inspect the pitch. It had held up particularly well, especially considering the amount or rain in the second half.. This had put paid to Keith's plans to divot and mow after the game, which would now be left until Monday.
The final task was for IMG to remove the logos using pressure washers. They come off well without any undue damage to the playing surface.
The groundstaff then meet up to reflect on the day and how the pitch played and performed. We all agreed it had stood up to the match, and the weather, very well, especially considering that it had seen four international matches and numerous training days within a four week period. It is a pity England did not match the performance of the pitch!
Maybe the tide will turn during the RBS Six Nations campaign
The Twickenham groundstaff were back the following Monday to complete the repairs and ongoing maintenance of the pitch, getting it ready for the Nomura Varsity match on December 11th when two games were played; the U21s kicking off at 11.00am and the seniors at 2.30pm.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Keith and his staff for giving me an insight into their busy work schedule, and for allowing me to fulfil a life long dream of walking out onto the hallowed turf of Twickenham.