Volunteer duo converts problems into solutions at Durham
Formed in 1872, one year after the inauguration of the Rugby Football Union, Durham City RFC’s current challenge in the North 2 East League – Level 6 is matched by the efforts of the club’s groundsmen, whose struggle against difficult circumstances is representative of the ‘secret army’ of volunteers who work for the love of their local leagues and of the grounds care industry. Andy Carmichael reports
With dual roles of Executive Director and Grounds Officer, respectively, Derek Best and Tony Howe also undertake pitch maintenace on a voluntary, unpaid basis at the club they have both been involved with since youth. They have two floodlit pitches and a training area under their charge at Hollow Drift - HD1 and 2 lie in a natural depression adjacent to the river Wear, having been laid down in 1885. HD1 is banked by a stand that seats 400 and features a 5,000-space grassed embankment of the sort loved by non-paying Wimbledon fans. The most significant aspect of the local geography is the impact of that major water course on the naturally wet, very acid sandy and loamy soils.
HD1 is, save the distance of the dead ball line, the same dimensions as Twickenham. But where the two grounds differ is in the unlikely scenario of the national stadium being asked to host 135 matches in a single season! Recognising the wear and tear of having 30 players regularly pounding the pitch at a time of year when the weather in County Durham is, shall we say, ‘fresh’, the club has tried to shift the burden on HD1 by playing more games at ‘outside’ pitches (two pitches are utlised elsewhere in the country) and last year it got the number down to a ‘mere’ 90 games. HD2 fairs little better, recently down from a high of 75 games and training three nights a week.
The desire to provide opportunities at all age and ability ranges and ensure the continued survival of the organisation obviously requires such use, but the resulting surface compaction, the naturally high water table, occasional flooding and the culvert location that is ringed by trees that hinder light penetration and disrupt airflow means that short of sabotaging the lawnmower and hiding the keys to the tractor, Derek and Tony couldn’t face any more obstacles! Well, apparently I undersatnd that the rabbits tend to eat the emerging grass and there is the odd badger or two….
The volume of matches HD1 accommodates cover first and second teams, ladies team, the University firsts and collegiate teams (almost a 1,000 students participate in rugby union), as well as occasional charity and representative games, making in-season surface maintenance the equivalent of trying to paint the Forth Road bridge while someone follows behind with a blowtorch.
Consequently the programme reads less like a perfect ‘how to’ guide and more like a ‘what can we’ schedule. The perennial ryegrass surface (Barenbrug Bar 7 sown currently) is regularly mown from a pre-season height of 75 mm to a level judged commensurate with surviving the wear and tear, while line marking and divot replacement are essential and oft-repeated tasks. Should the pitch be in need of flattening, and club annals report that the original state was ‘a bit boggy and not very level’, then chain harrows are dragged upside down lengthways - with rolling a last resort owing to the possibility of smear and subsequent surface sealing and panning. Slit tining and spiking, and the benefits to aeration and infiltration, are nice ideas, but given the near constant pitch use the nearest they get is the use of a fork. Thus the natural drainage of the sandy loam has been enhanced over the years with some ad hoc subgrade piping.
Close season maintenance is the time to regroup and implement sportsturf knowledge without the danger of being trampled underfoot.
Tony details how both pitches were sub-soiled nine years ago to reduce panning problems, and subsequently hollow-cored on a couple of occasions since. Turfcare Specialists Ltd provides an annual decompaction with an EarthQuake machine and has also done some targeted work on particular areas with a Blec Seedavator. The whole surface is then overseeded with a Charterhouse disc seeder, but a previously heavy regime of sand top-dressing has been curtailed for fear of ameliorating the profile too greatly.
A rugby pitch requires not just free drainage and good wear tolerance but firm footing as well.
A soil analysis is carried out every two or three years, and this has shown that not only are there savings to be had in terms of eliminating unnecessary fertilisers but armed with such information the club can also maximise the relationship it has with suppliers, working together on an appropriate plan.
Tony says both existing P and K levels are adequate and only nitrogen need be used - the timing of which is his main concern.
A pre-season ‘bump’ for the pitches is always sought, but any subsequent
dosages are subject to the prevailing climate. Warm wet summers plus heavy nitrogen levels can cause damp grass clippings going to rot on the surface, which would clearly enhance the likelihood of thatch incidence (as well as the entirely separate debate to be had on nitrates leaching into the water course).
Combine this with the moisture levels and the groundstaff know that all too rapidly they could be trying to run games on something resembling a bath sponge, great for landings after heavy tackles but problematic for grip and traction. Which is why they are also investigating a number of towed rake style implements to aid removal of surplus green waste.
Tony is keen to point out that neither he, nor Derek, profess to be expert groundsmen. “We are amateurs trying to save the club a bob or two, hopefully applying a bit of commonsense and are always happy to listen to advice – whether we can afford to act on it is another matter!”