Q&A: Sports Turf Research Institute

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The Sports Turf Research Institute (STRI) is the independent market leader in consultancy and research for sports surfaces offering advice at over 2,000 turf facilities in golf, soccer, rugby, cricket, horse racing and tennis. Counting Dublin's Croke Park, Lord's Cricket Ground, Royal Ascot, St Andrews, The Royal & Ancient (R&A) and Wimbledon among its high–profile clients, STRI faced a stiff examination of its credentials at the recent FIFA World Cup in South Africa.

STRI was appointed with 100 days to go to the FIFA World Cup and was tasked with preparing the 10 showpiece stadium pitches, 32 training camps and 12 venue–specific training sites in South Africa. Richard Hayden, STRI's director of operations, led the company's efforts in South Africa. He discussed with The Sport Briefing the challenges faced and wider issues affecting the sports turf industry. Q: STRI had a key part to play in South Africa's staging of the World Cup. What exactly did your role involve? RH: "We were given a contract with 100 days to go to the World Cup to oversee the delivery of initially all the stadium pitches. This then followed on to providing consultancy and advice for the installation of 32 practice pitches for each of the competing teams and the 12 venue–specific training surfaces. "Q: What challenges and problems did you encounter out in South Africa and how did you overcome them? RH: "Time obviously wasn't on our side, but this is just the nature of the business with new stadium projects. From that perspective one of the main challenges was the weather. We had an extremely wet February and March in South Africa and it was literally like monsoons. So every time we built one of the new training pitches for the event they would literally wash away. That was a big challenge, but another was the conversion of the fields from the native kikuyu grass to rye grass. That was a particularly big challenge as the native kikuyu grass goes dormant and bright yellow in winter time, not producing the correct needs for football. So we converted all of the existing pitches from the native grass to rye grass and it is an extremely aggressive grass in that you are trying to knock it back without killing it. "Another key issue was that this was the World Cup – the biggest event in the world – and ultimately we had to bring the industry up to speed very quickly with modern techniques. So we had up to 3, 000 people involved in the whole project, and we had 10 staff out there moving from site to site who I think covered 15, 000 miles each from February through to June as some sites required daily monitoring and others weekly monitoring. "Q: I remember speaking to the architect behind the Nelspruit's Mbombela Stadium ahead of the World Cup and he was telling me about the challenges they had with the pitch there. . . RH: "The Nelspruit pitch was an interesting one and it was clearly well reported in the media. They'd installed two pitches there and for one reason or another they hadn't worked. At that point FIFA employed us directly to look after the pitch there. So with that one the challenge was pretty big. We had to dig out the existing pitch and re–seed it. We installed Desso GrassMaster and this all happened in the space of 85 days. So there was a lot of scepticism from the local press and at one stage there was talk of it being dropped as a venue. But thankfully the next year it sprung up as we promised it would and became one of the best, if not the best, pitch at the World Cup. "Q: How would you respond to the criticism of the pitches at the World Cup? RH: "I wouldn't agree with you actually. From that perspective we attended management meetings every day and I had no official criticism of any of the pitches. We had problems with the Port Elizabeth pitch, but that was the only one we got any feedback on. From that perspective what was produced, and what the players played on and the feedback from them was really very good. The job was delivered fantastically by ourselves, the contractors and the groundsmen involved and I really don't think we could have done better. "Q: The buzz word for major sporting events these days is legacy, and I understand that this was also key for your approach? RH: "We've done a lot of training out there in particular, while all the machinery provided for the World Cup stays in place. We will also be popping in and out over the next year to make sure that all of these facilities are maintained to a really high standard. The legacy goes as far as to say that a lot of people have developed careers out of this in the last year. From that perspective I would go on record to say that the pitches delivered for the World Cup this year were the best ever. That feeds into the legacy as there is now an industry that has been created in South Africa, in particular for pitch maintenance, but also in terms of pitch construction and I do think they will continue to develop the facilities around the stadia. Part of our legacy was donating £10, 000 worth of our testing equipment to the South African Football Association, so that they continue to ensure that their pitches remain at high international standards. "Q: The Open concluded recently and I believe you unveiled some revolutionary technology there? RH: "We've developed the STRI Programme which is a new device to measure the trueness and speed of greens. Certainly it really worked well and received fantastic feedback from The Open. In a nutshell, the equipment measures how the ball interacts with the surface. Ultimately it provides more information to the groundsman or greenkeeper about how to provide uniform surfaces for all their greens. A classic problem in golf has always been the uniformity of greens, and this equipment allows us to predict for example if a ball is going to snake and minimise those circumstances to prevent that from happening. "Q: STRI recently announced their resignation as Wembley pitch consultants. What are the issues behind the stadium's hugely problematic pitch and the ways forward for it? RH: "We did tender our resignation, but we do maintain a very amicable relationship with Wembley. One of the key issues with Wembley, and it has been well reported, is the business plan. They have a very intensive business plan and that is very influential as to what you can achieve with your pitch. I think we proved out in South Africa, where we produced some fantastic pitches and in Nelspruit's case in 70 days, it is possible to produce a great pitch in that time. But we don't have concerts and concerts are certainly very heavy on pitches, and particularly for big events. "Unfortunately it is becoming more of an issue around the world because as more and more people download music, the only way for artists to make money now is the concerts. So we are going to see more and more concerts in multi–use venues around the world. The micro environment at Wembley is also a very tough one in which to grow grass, and the stadium is a bit unique in that way. They're in a situation where they have to have the events, and that's fine. But I'm of the opinion that it will definitely improve. They've put in the permanent pitch and you will always have a better pitch with a seeded pitch. "Q: In your opinion what are the key mistakes that sports clubs and organisations make when implementing their playing surfaces? RH: "I think it's very important to first of all that when planning a surface, the groundsman and consultants need to be involved from day one. The pitch must not be considered just as an afterthought for a new stadium and the main failure that I see worldwide is the lack of acknowledgement that this is a professional industry. Ultimately the groundsman must have an input from day one. If people did head this advice it would save them a lot of money, but would also avoid a lot of the problems you see with pitches because unfortunately stadia can be built and the pitches can be considered an afterthought. "Q: Looking ahead what future events are STRI going to be involved in and what is the future for the sports surface industry? RH: "Ultimately, my next stop will be to rebuild the surface for the Hickstead Arena's hosting of the All England Showjumping Championships, in August. We have two jobs in Turkey, along with Euro 2012 where we do a lot of work with UEFA, and we are also starting work on Brazil 2014 in January. Everybody has recognised that we need to spend more time on the pitches. FIFA, and (secretary general) Jerome Valcke in particular, have taken a huge interest in sports surfaces and making sure that the players are happy. "About The Sport Briefing This story has been reproduced with the kind permission of The Sport Briefing. The Sport Briefing is published by PA Sport and can be found at: www. thesportbriefing. comFor more information, email info@thesportbriefing. com or call +(0) 44 207 963 7888.

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