Dean Gilasbey and Soil Coreing
Will Collins reports how Head Groundsman Dean Gilasbey has successfully tackled poor rootzone problems on the UK’s first fibre-elastic rugby union pitch at Parc-y-Scarlets’ Llanelli ground
A soil corer is one of Dean Gilasbey’s most treasured possessions – that and a tape measure! Because every two weeks, he studiously takes rootzone samples from the Parc-y-Scarlets’ pitch – three each from random positions on both north and south sides, and three down the centreline at the South Wales stadium, the home of Scarlets RFC since the closure last year of the Stradey Park stadium. The subsequent results of root depth and mass, and percentage grass cover, are then loaded onto his PC to update a real-time plot of exactly what is happening on the ground.
“When we first came here, we were told adamantly that we’d be lucky to get, at best, a 100 mm rootzone,” Dean reflects. “That would have been no good at all for a surface for rugby union, bearing in mind the likely shrinkage of root mass in the winter. Ideally, to avoid the pitch ‘tearing up’ I wanted 200 mm – which would probably shrink to 80 mm, and anything less than 130 mm would result in serious divots and an unplayable, even dangerous, surface.
“The answer, I knew, was a serious combination of aeration and amino acids to encourage root growth. So, we embarked upon a concerted programme of deep aeration (no deeper than 200 mm, otherwise we’re in danger of fracturing the undersoil heating pipes!) and coupled with liberal applications of amino acids this has enabled us to almost achieve our targets.”
So far, he says, he is pleased with the results – for example, a test on February 19 this year showed 200 mm of root mass; five weeks later there had been a massive increase. “But there’s no room for complacency, so it’s a case of air, air and more air, and amino acids.”
The real test, he says, was a concentrated series of games last year – more than 70 sessions between November 2008 and May 2009 – “and, by and large, the surface held up well”. So much so, he adds, that the pitch has drawn laudatory comments from the Scarlets’ board as well as from the Welsh FA, which staged a couple of internationals there at the end of the season.
Why Dean relies so heavily on the soil corer and tape measure demands an appreciation of pitch construction at the £23 million stadium near Swansea.
Based on a 100 mm gravel carpet then 200 mm of sand and another, top layer of 100 mm sand that, crucially, includes elastic filament reinforcement ‘ topped off’ by Advanta Seeds’ MM60 ryegrass mix. Dean says this is the first rugby union pitch in the UK constructed in this way. “And like every rugby pitch, the true test is how it copes with scrums.”
With a number of groundsmanship years under his belt, starting as an apprentice at The Vetch (home to Swansea City FC) then joining Lanelli RFC at Stradey Park as Head Groundsman aged 18, Dean then spent 13 years at Stradey Park before a three-year spell contracting at the Liberty Stadium (home to Swansea AFC and the Ospreys RFC) before rejoining the Scarlets in June last year. This impressive pedigree of practical experience is enhanced by his NVQ Levels 1 and 2 (horticulture) and NVQ/IOG equivalent Levels 1, 2 and 3 (sports turf) accreditations – “and when time allows I hope to complete further qualifications”.
All this knowledge combines in the quest to make the Scarlets’ pitch “the best in the UK” – coupled with the input of his assistant Sion Bennett – “you couldn’t find a more committed and enthusiastic individual” – and backing of the Scarlets’ Board, including chief executive Paul Sergeant.
“There is no doubt that Paul understands and appreciates the role of groundsmanship, states Dean. “Indeed, a recent example concerns his agreement to my request for a period of rest (two weeks) for the pitch after a spell of staging six sessions in eight days as part of a month when we had 15 sessions. He understands the requirements of maintaining a first-class pitch and his support certainly puts groundsmanship into perspective.”
Concluding, Dean re-affirms that rugby is probably the most demanding sport for a playing surface and while fibre-elastic pitches are proven for football and rugby league, rugby union is a different kettle of fish. “However, by continuing with our proactive maintenance regime, I would like this to be one of the best rugby surfaces in the country!”
Dean Gilasbey maintains a fleet of predominantly
John Deere and Dennis machinery, including:
1 x 3520 tractor with Galaxy tyres
5 x R54RKB pedestrian mowers
1 x 2653 triple mower
2 x Dennis pedestrian mowers
1 x SISIS Javelin
1 x Vertidrain
His ‘tool box’ also includes a microscope, an invaluable ally in the war against nematodes which during the past year has cost at least £3,000 to combat. But that’s anther story...