The Grounds Staff: Pitching for the perfect surface

Aviva’s Majella Smyth has seen many pitches come and go but says the new Desso surface is the best

Thu, Jan 30, 2014, 15:00

It’s hard to scrummage on a poor pitch. Yet in the last year the elite level of rugby union has seen Test matches played on pitches that offered more ploughed furrows than firm footing.

After a difficult 2013 Six Nations for the Aviva Stadium pitch, by the time the autumn Tests had come and gone the Lansdowne Road surface had been removed from the villains list. Morale is high among the grounds staff at IRFU headquarters and a big reason for that lies with an 83-year-old carpeting firm from the Netherlands.

In Cardiff, head groundsman Ian Evans is nursing his pitch through one final season at the Millennium Stadium. The current pitch is palletised, with grass grown elsewhere before being transported to the stadium and laid down in patches.

From the experience at his own ground and from watching others Evans has come to a clear conclusion. “You can no longer play top level rugby on an imported turf pitch,” said Evans.

The 2014 Heineken Cup final will be the last high profile match on the grass surface and Evans can’t wait to get his replacement. It will be a hybrid pitch just like Twickenham and the Aviva Stadium. It will be a Desso Grassmaster.

Desso first laid its “Grassmaster” pitch for a professional team in 1992. The Dutch firm is a major player in the tile and carpeting business with the bulk of their trade done in the type of carpet tiles typically found in corporate offices, cruise ships and airliners.

The pitch comprises natural grass reinforced with 20,000,000 fibre strands “knitted” every 0.8 inches to a depth of almost eight inches into the sub base. It’s the same surface as Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin, home of the NFL’s Green Bay Packers.

Despite sometimes suffering snow and extreme wind chill of as low as -25 degrees Celsius, Desso says in the pitch’s 12-year life the Packers have never postponed a game for pitch reasons.

In June 2012 the bulldozers arrived to dig up 9,000 tons of Twickenham turf. The old Fibresand pitch had been in place for 12 years but it was reaching the end of a good life. Over the next 14 weeks Keith Kent, head groundsman at Twickenham since September 2002, installed the first Desso Grassmaster pitch used in the Six Nations. He’s very happy with it. “There’s no hiding place for a groundsman”, said Kent. “The game starts and it’s live on TV. And once it kicks off, everyone’s a groundsman”.

Majella Smyth is head groundsman at the Aviva Stadium. He’s been there for 20 years and between the old Lansdowne Road and its shiny 2010 replacement he’s seen pitches of various types come and go.

In 2012 he visited Kent to see the new Twickenham pitch and came away impressed. Installed at the Aviva Stadium in August 2013, Smyth’s new Desso surface is already the third pitch in the new ground’s short life. It’s early days, but already Smyth reckons it’s the best by some distance.

Smyth will watch a game’s first scrum like a hawk, preferably from a spot just inside the players’ tunnel. The first rugby international on the new surface was against Samoa last autumn. “There were 30 scrums in the first half” said Smyth. There were indeed an unusual number of scrums in that match, but 30?

“Including resets. Every reset is a scrum, to a groundsman.”

Smyth watches the first scrum closely because it’s just not possible for a groundsman to test what will happen when two tons of powerful humans, with studs, push in opposite directions on a small patch of grass.

You can only wait, and hope, and watch. Smyth was happy with what he saw in that game. The surface had maintained its structure, unlike the Six Nations visits of England and France earlier that year where the turf pitch of the time had come up in strips.

Turf coming up underfoot is frustrating for players and fans but at least those games were played.

In the wake of the 2012 postponement of France versus Ireland due to a frozen pitch it seemed odd to many that such a modern stadium, opened in 1998, did not have undersoil heating. Yet undersoil heating is not the miracle cure-all for freezing conditions that many armchair groundsmen believe.

“You can’t turn the undersoil heating too high or you’ll cook the roots” said Smyth.

Both Kent and Smyth have noticed significant improvements in the quality of drainage with the Desso surface. Each of the 20,000,000 fibres knitted deep into the pitch’s sub base essentially acts as a drainpipe, filtering water quickly away. The many millions of artificial fibres might sound like a lot but the surface is still made up of 97 per cent grass.

The key difference between that and a 100 per cent grass pitch, says Smyth, is in the structure provided by the fibres and sub base. If some natural grass is torn away the structure ensures the roots will still remain fine and healthy.

What the Desso system cannot do is grow the grass, which still needs light, air and warmth to start photosynthesis. Both air movement and light are crucial for grass growth and disease prevention with both liable to be restricted by the shape of modern, enclosed stadiums.

Lighting rigs are widely used to aid the natural photosynthetic process with giant vacuum cleaners used in some stadiums to clear debris and help the grass “stand up” again.

Desso is not perfect, however. Due to the high volume of sand in the sub base the holding capacity of nutrients in the soil is much less than with a turf pitch so the grass must be fed more often by Smyth and his hard-working team of Darren Hayes, Rob Everett and Paddy Newman.

Hard work cannot prevent everything, however. Edinburgh’s Murrayfield pitch was criticised during the autumn Tests, its poor condition a consequence of an attack of nematodes now described as “manageable” by the Scottish Rugby Union. All groundsmen test for nematodes, a worm-like parasite.

They are naturally occurring and the key is to keep an eye on the levels of good ones versus bad ones. Such an attack can be the groundsman’s worst nightmare; an act of god destroying the surface they call their own.

Modern grounds are now built to host concerts, conferences and more. But sports are the bread and butter.

Stadiums promote themselves in the hope of attracting major fixtures such as the Heineken Cup final.

Central to that promotion is the promise of a top quality surface that will both play well and, importantly, look attractive to the millions staring at that green rectangle on their televisions.

“Aesthetics is 50 per cent of it now”, says Millennium Stadium head groundsman Lee Evans, who used a biodegradable paint for the majority of Wales’ autumn series in order to help make the pitch look its best. “It’s bizarre; it should surely be all about the playing surface.”

The groundsman’s unwritten rule? You don’t criticise another man’s pitch. Each knows that nobody feels the frustration more than the individual entrusted with looking after that beautiful green field. “It’s your pride and joy,” said Kent.

“And if it didn’t mean that much to you, you shouldn’t be a groundsman. It’s not a job. It’s a calling”.

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