An Insight into Exeter Chiefs Rugby - Part 2
As any supporter of Exeter Chiefs must be aware, an integral part of running a successful rugby club is the maintenance of the stadium and the pitch so in this instalment we are talking to Exeter Chiefs’ grounds man, Adrian Witton.
Adrian, dealing with the main pitch, the first thing people say is “Doesn’t the pitch look great”? Can you give some details on how you maintain it to such a high standard?
“It’s difficult; it was laid in the first place quite well. Yes, we have to maintain it a lot afterwards, but it’s like anything, the foundations you put down are like a house, if they’re good the house will be good and it’s the same with the pitch really. It’s sand-based, it drains well but the consequence of having a free-draining pitch is you get rid of the nutrients very quickly. We have to feed it a lot to keep it strong and healthy. We also cut it regularly; people think you should let the grass grow, but grass likes to be cut, as it will thicken up if you do. We spike it and rake it regularly; doing all these jobs is not quick. To scarify the pitch will take me all day so we can soon build up a lot of time doing things. You would be surprised how much rubbish we get out of the pitch, dead grass and stuff like that. We use both liquid and granular fertilisers.”
Continuing on from there, how often do you cut the grass?
“During the summer and late summer, probably three times a week; in the winter it’s hardly a cut, it doesn’t grow very much, so we’re down to once or maybe twice a week. In mid-winter it’s not at all really; we go over it just for aesthetic purposes, to put a nice stripe on it”.
Is the grass you use prescribed by the company that laid the pitch and what mixture or type of grass is sown?
“It’s down to me basically. I have regular meetings with suppliers to discuss the best seed to use. There are lots of varieties available; we use a rye mix at the moment. A lot of the premier football clubs use it, Chelsea does and I also believe Twickenham , so it’s used by all the top stadiums - if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for us. Two hundred kilos of grass seed is sown at the end of the season, ten bags at £70 per bag, so you can see how it mounts up. The fertiliser is £400 per application and in the summer we are spreading it every two weeks. In the winter we use something which is more expensive, but lasts a lot longer, so we’ll probably only do it twice because the grass is not growing naturally, otherwise you’re forcing it”.
Adrian, how long do you think this pitch will last?
“I think the club would be looking to renew it during the next three years depending on finances. Renewing would mean replacing just the top soil because all the drainage stays where it is. If you take off just one inch of the surface it’s equivalent to 700 tons of soil, so then you have to replace that also. That makes it expensive, because the soil is up to £35 ton, plus transport, taking everything away and the cost of grass seed, you would soon get a bill of £50,000 to £70,000. This year we put 200 tons of sand into the pitch at £35 a ton, and at the end of the season the cost of pitch renovation was about £20,000.”
How soon after a game do you begin work on the pitch?
“We get back onto it on the Monday. What we tend to do is brush it, because there’ll be lots of dead grass kicked out by the players, so we do this to get the loose stuff off the top, and then use the rotary mower that hoovers up the dead grass. We’ll probably spike it, and then hand divot it with a bucket and a fork! Some things remain old-fashioned!”
Can you explain how you put the cup -game logos on the grass? And what about those white lines?
“We have a company who come in and do the logo for us. They’ve got a big stencil, and they do it with a paintbrush and a pot even in this age of modern technology! They put the stencil down and dot out the outline so they know where it’s going and fill in the colour. It takes me and Max, my assistant, two hours to paint the lines, three if I do it on my own because the pitch is 100 metres long, which is the maximum, and width wise it is 69 metres, compared with the maximum 70. It costs about £25 in paint each time we white line, and the paint cannot be put down if it is raining or if the grass is wet so a dry spell is essential to mark the pitch.”
How often do you allow the players to train on the pitch?
“Normally that’s up for discussion between me and Rob really. It depends on the weather. I like to look after the pitch as much as I can but I realise it’s really helpful for Rob to get the players on it as often as he can, so as long as they’re not doing too many drills, I don’t mind too much. If it’s very wet or frosty they won’t go on anyway but I do try and let them use it as much as possible.”
Knowing how variable weather forecasts can be, do you rely on them for pitch preparation?
“Yes, we have to really. You’re right, they’re not always accurate. I’ve been here 4 years myself now and I’ve learnt that we have a slight micro-climate. Our weather here can be different from Exeter city centre. The wind is the major difference and it doesn’t help the grass to grow, in fact it stops it from growing. I watch the weather every night just to fit in the work, such as spraying the next day, because if I want to do an operation, I need the right weather conditions.”
What is most difficult to deal with frost or heavy rain?
“Well frost really, because if there’s frost on the ground we can’t do anything”.
Is there anything you can do to protect from the frost?
“Yes, we’ve got frost covers for the pitch which we use for snow as well. They have to go down before the frost arrives, because the covers that we have only work down to about -4. Any lower than that, and it will probably go through them. If you have a televised game the Premiership uses a company that will come and erect a blow-up bubble which will protect the whole pitch for you.”
There is also an artificial pitch here. What is that made of and can you give us some idea of its maintenance. Do you see the artificial pitch as the playing surface of the future?
“I hope not! The artificial pitch is essentially a synthetic carpet; the fibres are about 2- 3 inches long and it’s filled with crumb which is made from rubber– it’s about 2 inches deep of rubber. There is a polystyrene shock pad underneath which makes it quite nice and soft, gives it a good feel. All we do is brush it on a regular basis just to keep the rubber moving around a bit. We try to do it monthly. Also specialist machinery comes in once a year to loosen it up. Saracens are all for having an artificial pitch, but they won’t be doing it this season.”
The stadium as a whole – can you give us an idea of your other duties as grounds man? How is your time divided between the pitches and the rest of the complex?
“We tend to get involved with everything that’s here really. We clean up after the match, clean up the rubbish. Actually this year we have started recycling; that’s a bit better because there’s a hell of a lot of plastic up here; we‘ve got recycling bins now which is quite good. Any painting that needs doing, the painting of the steps in the grandstand, that’s about 300 steps to paint. There’s the lodge where the players stay, we go down and keep that tidy, cut the grass, but we don’t get involved on the inside! Nobody wants to go inside there! The pathways, the car park, the Piazza area, we keep them weed free if we can, all the outside areas we keep clean and tidy. A company, Stalite, come in and put up the sponsorship boards, but we’ll fix one if it comes loose. From taking the posts down to unblocking toilets and drains if need be, we’re normally the first port of call if anyone’s got a problem.”
What’s the worst job you do?
“The steps were a laborious job, but I can’t say I didn’t like it - in the summer it’s not too bad. We do a bit of strimming around here; obviously I’m getting on a bit and my back isn’t too good doing that. But nothing really, I don’t mind getting in and doing anything.
Do you think there would ever become a time when a roof would be needed on the Sandy Park pitch?
“I don’t particularly think so to be honest; we’re in the south west, we get wind and we get rain, but it’s only occasionally we get a winter like we did last season. We lost just one game last year which was a very severe winter. The cost would be prohibitive compared with what you would gain from it.”
At the start and end of the game do you look at the pitch and think “Job well done”?
“Well, apart from the Gloucester A game they played last season on a Monday night when I wasn’t very happy because it rained heavily all evening, I usually think it does look nice, although I always think it looks better on a Friday – but sometimes I do think “I wish they would get off now””!
Talking to Adrian, it is obvious that he cares and maintains the pitch to a very high standard. Exeter Chiefs rugby has a pitch and ground staff of which they can be proud.