Countless rugby supporters can hardly wait until one of the northern hemisphere’s annual rugby highlights, the RBS Six Nations, kicks off next month. Die-hard followers of the oval ball are no doubt holding their breath during the Guinness Premiership and Heineken Cup matches just in case any of their England heroes get injured, and so miss out on appearing in the England 22 come 6 February against Wales.
But there’s another thing they must all hope and pray for – especially after the recent atrocious weather conditions – and that’s the condition of Twickenham’s hallowed turf. And that’s where all eyes turn to the master himself – Twickenham’s Head Groundsman, Keith Kent. His skills and years of experience are all important.
As David Winn, sports turf industry manager for Lantra Sector Skills Council, explains, “To turn out a top quality pitch, in spite of everything the weather has thrown at us over Christmas, takes some doing and requires real skill.”
Keith Kent has been Twickenham’s head groundsman for seven years, moving to rugby from none other than Manchester United. You could say he’s one of many unsung heroes, up and down the country, who every week of the year work hard to ensure our sports grounds are looking – and performing – at their best.
But there’s good news for those Six Nations fans lucky enough to be going to Twickenham or settling down in front of the television for the 5’oclock kick off against Wales, as Keith says his is a labour of love – groundsmen love their pitches probably even more than the sport itself. He explains,
“It’s not just a job, it’s a calling. A good groundsman never gives up. I’ve felt sorry for so many who have lost games in the bad weather. Interestingly Leicester City Football Club, where I started as a trainee groundsman in 1970, and the Leicester Tigers hosted the only games played in the whole country early in January and just like Twickenham neither has a heated pitch.”
Keeping a pitch playable, especially in extreme conditions, requires an excellent understanding of the science of soil, the right equipment, good preparation and skill. Despite the job having changed considerably in the last few decades since Keith got involved, using more machinery, technology and science, Keith insists it is still a vocation.
Long gone are the days when a groundsman was just the chap who mowed the grass and painted the pitch markings. He (or she for that matter) still does the same jobs, but the knowledge required to manage and perfect a pitch are much more sophisticated today. But the right training can lead to a rewarding lifelong career, and as British groundsmen are renowned throughout the world for their expertise, some very exciting opportunities can crop up.
When Keith swapped Old Trafford for ‘Twickers’, part of his new role was to help the community game with advice on groundsmanship – a role he relishes. He continues,
“The challenges in this place got me excited again and over the past seven years we have visited more than 200 local rugby clubs doing seminars on groundsmanship – machinery, maintenance, fertiliser, everything – and worked with volunteer groundsmen and committees. Judging by the letters we get, they’re enormously grateful for the help and advice.
“I love working with local clubs. After England’s success in the Rugby World Cup in 2003 an extra 50,000 people took up rugby, which was another 50,000 pairs of feet running about on their pitches. Education and training is the best thing in the world and I get a real thrill going around the country doing this. I think we are the only gaming body with somebody like me going out all the time.”
“Young ground staff might not do so much by hand these days but how well the machines work is down to the operator. You need to judge the ground and the weather all the time. And these days there are so many varieties of fertiliser and sand – literally hundreds – for different stages of a season.”
“The biggest thing that motivates a groundsman is pride. Pride in the right stripes in the grass, bright white lines, a manicured, level surface. The pitch HAS to be playable. You can roll it, brush it, it might freeze or get dry or flooded… The biggest thing to improve since I started is drainage – if you can get water away, 80-90% of your problems are gone. If it’s dry you can water, but if the ground is wet what do you do’ The next worst thing is frost, which makes the ground like the Alps. And if you play a pitch that has thawed just at the top, you skid the surface off and have to start all over again.”
Lantra’s David Winn concluded, “As you can hear from Keith’s experienced tips, there is so much more to groundmanship than you perhaps first think. Industry research has revealed there is a real need for more new entrants in this area of employment and apprenticeship places are sometimes available, so why not consider whether you would be the right person for this job’”
If you would like to learn more about groundkeeping and careers in the environmental and land-based sector, Lantra can help. Please visit www.lantra.co.uk or call 0845 707 8007.