Five tips to help grassroots clubs weatherproof their pitches

The country’s grassroots rugby pitches are struggling to cope with the heavy rain that marked the start of 2018 and clubs risk losing crucial income. Keith Kent of NatWest RugbyForce is here to help.

The Rugby Football Union’s head groundsman Keith Kent has been in charge of tending to Twickenham Stadium’s hallowed turf since September 2002, having previously been head groundsman at Manchester United’s Old Trafford.

As part of NatWest RugbyForce’s commitment to assisting grassroots rugby clubs across the country he has visited 108 grounds in the past two years: 48 in 2016, and 60 in 2017.

Clubs signing up to NatWest RugbyForce can apply for a Pitch Maintenance Kick Start grant of £5,000, plus support and advice from Kent and other experts on how to best invest that sum.

On top of that, Kent will travel to more clubs this year with RugbyForce because he is passionate about advising volunteer groundsmen how to improve the condition of their pitches, as he recognises the importance of the rugby club to the local community. Unplayable pitches mean clubs lose income and the community loses a focal point.

“For every visit I will walk all the pitches with the volunteer groundsman and carry a spade with me,” he says. “It might take one hour or three; it depends how many pitches there are.

“I use the spade to dig a hole in each pitch, and look at the root zones, see if there is any compaction, what type of soil it is, and whether it has got a good crumb structure or whether it is terrible clay.

“After completing my assessment I will sit down with the members of the club and provide them with a detailed, bespoke programme outlining what I would like them to do in the coming close season and throughout the season.

“I never criticise them, because those volunteers are the oil that turn the cogs of rugby in Britain. It’s hard work, but it is very rewarding.”

Keith Kent's top five tips:

1 Aeration is the crucial factor

This is my No1 tip. If you don’t spike your pitch, the rainwater will not be able to drain, and the top surface will become very compacted. I advise groundsmen to aerate their pitches as often as possible. You can either hard-fork areas that have pooled water, as that is a simple and effective way to aerate.

At the other end of the scale you can use a Verti-Drain, which costs between £350 and £600 but will put thousands of holes in your pitch. Just imagine how quickly the water will drain.

2 Sanding: it’s pricey but RugbyForce can help

Following aeration the most important remedial work is proper sanding. I recommend spreading a minimum of 60 tonnes per pitch, and a maximum of 100 tonnes. Brush that sand into all those holes you have spiked, and think about how thousands of little arrow-shaped holes filled with sand will better drain.

It’s so simple but it works wonders. Sand is expensive, though – it can be £35 per tonne – but NatWest RugbyForce has a history of being very generous and helping out on this front.

3 Rye grass seed is best

Rye grass seed is the best we grow in this country to use on rugby pitches, because it is the hardest wearing. It bounces back and its recovery is amazing. Ideally you don’t want the grass to get any higher than 50mm, or about two inches.

4 Fertilise in autumn

Don’t forget to fertilise the grass seed. Grow it properly – don’t just seed it and feed it in the summer. Putting an autumn feed on, allied with an aeration, will really improve your pitch going into the dark winter months. That’s the key: it is prevention rather than cure.

5 Use the right tractor

I appreciate that a majority of clubs have volunteer groundsmen who might not tend to their pitches until the Friday before a game, so day-to-day maintenance is difficult. When I visit I look in their shed to see what implements they use. And I also quiz them on their tractor, if they have one.

Most of the clubs, especially those in the countryside, tend to have rather large tractors with agricultural tyres. This is not good practice as the cleats can cause a lot of damage and they tend to stay in the shed for the majority of the year during wet weather. Most of the time they will only use it once a year, in June, when the ground is dry enough.

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First published, written by Oliver Pickup 2 February 2018