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A groundsman’s groundsman

September 26, 2013  - By
Keith Kent

Keith Kent

Keith Kent, head groundskeeper at England’s Twickenham Stadium, works to help all 2,000 rugby clubs look their best.

Rugby may seem like a tough game, but the people involved in the game pride themselves on being gracious and respectful.

Take, for example, Keith Kent, head groundsman at Twickenham Stadium. He’s a gentleman for sure, and also a man who takes a deep pride in serving as an ambassador for his fellow rugby groundsmen in England.

The 82,000-seat Twickenham Stadium houses the World Rugby Museum, a 150-room hotel and a gymnasium, but most importantly serves as the home of England Rugby and the Rugby Football Union (RFU). It could be argued that it’s the world headquarters of rugby.

Kent, a native of England, has been at Twickenham since September 2002. He came from a soccer pitch background, but has since fallen in love with rugby and it’s five core values: teamwork, respect, enjoyment, discipline and sportsmanship.

“The kids who are playing rugby are learning discipline, they’re learning respect and they’re learning a sport,” Kent says proudly. “We instill those five core values of rugby. We try to instill those in the sport.”

Kent was previously at Manchester United’s soccer stadium. He wasn’t looking to change jobs, but there was one thing that hooked him about working for the RFU: the chance to help his fellow groundskeepers.

Twickenham Stadium is the home of England Rugby and the Rugby Football Union.

Twickenham Stadium is the home of England Rugby and the Rugby Football Union.

“Richard Knight, the man who interviewed me, is still my boss today. The thing that hooked me, he said ‘I want you to go out to the community, to clubs at all levels, and help them out,’” he recalls. “I thought I could have the best job in the world here, spend time away and be paid for traveling around the country and supporting fellow groundsmen.”

Kent takes his job as a groundsman for all of English rugby seriously. By midyear he had already visited 70 different clubs.

“It’s fantastic. I go out to a club that has a limited budget and I ask questions and give advice: do you seed, what seed do you use, do you aerate? Sand is the biggest problem, sand is very expensive at the moment,” he says. “People are delighted to have the RFU and see that this big citadel is willing to send its groundsman over 200 miles to see somebody. People are impressed with that alone without giving them anything.”

“I’m fortunate that I’m supported by two great groundsmen at Twickenham, Ian Ayling and Andy Muir,” he says. “It is because of their support and the work they do that I am able to have periods of time on the road.”

Kent is a big thinker, and for the last decade he’s been tying to figure out the best way to help as many rugby groundsman (many of them amateurs) as possible. When the RFU asked him nine years ago what piece of equipment he’d give to every groundskeeper in the country if he could, his answer was an aerator.

“We went out and bought 16 tractors and 16 soil relievers. The idea was, we give it to you, you do your fields, then drive it to the next club… it was naïve and it didn’t work,” Kent says. “Because if you’ve been driving a Ford Focus and then jump into a tractor? People were nervous. So we changed tactics and we put them in with contractors.”

The idea evolved into free tractors and soil relievers provided to contractors with the understanding that they would service rugby fields at a minimal fee. It was more successful, but Kent still wasn’t satisfied. He went back to the drawing board.

Twickenham Stadium is the largest dedicated rugby stadium in the world.

Twickenham Stadium is the largest dedicated rugby stadium in the world.

His new idea involved equipment manufacturer Ransomes Jacobsen. Kent asked if Ransomes Jacobsen could help him assemble a three-piece package: an Iseki tractor, a Sisis Quadraplay and a Sisis Multitiner. Kent figured these three pieces of equipment could be most beneficial to the amateur groundsman.

The RFU successfully obtained a £340,000 ($540,000) government grant for the program, jokingly named the Keith Kent Package. Instead of simply giving the equipment away, they looked to make the clubs work for the equipment. An individual Keith Kent Package, valued at £18,000 ($28,800), would be given to clubs that could raise £8,000 ($12,800) on their own. If they raised the £8,000, the RFU would pay the remaining £10,000 out of the £340,000 grant.

“206 clubs applied,” Kent says with a smile. “We split it up, some clubs only got tractors, some got the Sisis. The country was absolutely buzzing.”

The reward for Kent is knowing he is doing his part to spread the great game of rugby.

“On a Saturday there’s 2,000 clubs, each fielding at least one team of 15 men. Then on a Sunday, you could have more than 200 kids playing on two pitches, plus women’s teams. So you’ve got to be able to aerate them, and brush them, you’ve got to be able to look after them,” he says. “I’m going out there to teach them. And not just me, but the network. It makes you so proud.”

Keith Kent outtakes

One thing we learned after hanging out with Keith Kent for an afternoon: the man has a gift for storytelling. We can’t wait to grab a pint with him someday to hear more of his stories (we’re still laughing at his story about the time he met Mick Jagger.) In the meantime, here are a few Kent gems that didn’t make the story, but we still wanted to share.

“Welcome to Twickenham, the home of England rugby. The largest dedicated rugby stadium in the world–82,000 seating capacity–it’s been here since 1909. It’s got the nice nickname of the cabbage patch.”

“I joined up [at Twickenham] in September 2002. I’ve been here 11 years, and I’ve never looked back. My first concert here was the Rolling Stones, it doesn’t get any better than that does it? I could have retired that night!”

“A rugby scrum is the worst thing in sports, other than horses, that you can have on natural grass.”

Also located at Twickenham Stadium is the World Rugby Museum, a 150-room hotel and a gymnasium.

Also located at Twickenham Stadium is the World Rugby Museum, a 150-room hotel and a gymnasium.

“We aerate. We’ve got a (Toro) Procore. We mainly Procore because one, we enjoy the walk. And two, there’s no weight on it, the heaviest thing out there, unfortunately, is me.”

“Footballers (soccer players) are 9 to 11 stone (126 to 150 lbs.) We’ve got (rugby) wingers who are 17 stone (238 lbs.) and can run 100 yards in 11 seconds. That’s a mean machine. If that hits you, you stay here.”

“We play all our games in the wrong bloody time of the year. From a groundskeeper’s point of view, it’s crazy. If we were playing from July until September, the grass would love it. Grass roots go down the best in September, there’s warmth, there’s moisture and the soil is still warm. But we kick off in September! So you’re fighting a losing battle.”

“I’m at a club, and there’s a row of poplar trees. Somebody has been up and lopped ’em, they were perfect. I know how much hard work it is to get them like that, I used to work on trees. I said ‘Blimey, someone has done a good job there.’ The groundsman says to me, ‘We lost a couple down there. We’ve got to replace them.’ I said, ‘Why do you have to replace them?’ He looks at me and says, ‘Every one of those poplars represent a member we lost in the Great War.’ The guns have been silent for 90 years, yet he knew… the respect in this game is awesome. That’s why I love it, that’s why I wake up in the morning and drive somewhere to help a club. If I can help to deliver a tractor and an implement to help kids and grown-ups play such a great sport… it makes it worth getting up in the morning.”

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About the Author:

Seth Jones, an 18-year veteran of the golf industry media, is Editor-in-Chief of Golfdom magazine and Athletic Turf. A graduate of the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Mass Communications, Jones began working for Golf Course Management in 1999 as an intern. In his professional career he has won numerous awards, including a Turf and Ornamental Communicators Association (TOCA) first place general feature writing award for his profile of World Golf Hall of Famer Greg Norman and a TOCA first place photography award for his work covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In his career, Jones has accumulated an impressive list of interviews, including such names as George H.W. Bush, Samuel L. Jackson, Lance Armstrong and Charles Barkley. Jones has also done in-depth interviews with such golfing luminaries as Norman, Gary Player, Nick Price and Lorena Ochoa, to name only a few. Jones is a member of both the Golf Writers Association of America and the Turf and Ornamental Communicators Association.

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