On a beautiful Wednesday morning, I got down to Carton House to meet the grounds team behind one of the most prestigious resorts in the country. I wanted to get an insight into the work that goes into preparing the training facilities that have proved so popular with some of the most famous sports teams in the world and the team that carry out this work. We will also get to see how they prepared to host the British & Irish Lions for their final training session, ahead of their Tour of New Zealand.
Estate manager John Plummer greeted me at the training facility for a quick introduction, preparations were well underway and it was very much all hands on deck for John and his whole team. After a quick rundown on how preparations for the weekend are coming along, John introduces me to the assistant course superintendent, Mark Farragher. Mark has been with Carton House since 2001 and will be giving me the inside look at how the grounds team look after such a desirable training facility.
Mark, John and the team at Carton House have a huge job on their hands. Carton House is a 1,100-acre, private parkland estate, which boasts two championship golf courses and a training facility that is dedicated to being the best sports training centre for professional teams in Europe. The team is made up of 14 fulltime groundsmen and greenkeepers. Mark, a very highly regarded greenkeeper, tells me that Joe Meagher is the main guy that looks after the training pitch's and I got to meet Joe briefly, who was busy marking out the rugby pitches in time for the arrival of The Lions.
Mark tells me that he has a background in dairy farming, "I liked the farming and all, but just knew it wasn't for me, I needed to do my own thing. I think I had seen a magazine, with a fairway Lawnmower on it and I just thought, 'that looks brilliant!' Also I used to look after the lawn at home, and our mower had a roller on the back of it. I was mad into getting the lawn striped up!" Mark left the dairy farming and went on to enrol in The College of Horticulture in Termonfeckin and picked up a national diploma. He spent two years doing work experience from The College of Horticulture in Gleneagles. "That's really what did it for me. The staff live on site in Gleneagles, they have something like 200 rooms for staff and this was great for attracting all sorts, from all over the world." After Gleneagles, he spent some time at Lahinch Golf Club, then a spell at the K-Club before going back to college again, this time Elmwood to do his HND. "That's me, I have been here since."
The Carton House grounds consists of two championship courses, The O'Meara and The Montgomerie Course. The O'Meara Course was designed by two-time major winner Mark O'Meara, it hosted the 2005 Irish Amateur Championship. The Montgomerie Course was designed by Colin Montgomerie and has hosted some of the world's finest golfers at the 2005, 2006 & 2013 Irish Opens and the 2010 Irish Seniors Open. "When I came in, there were dairy cows still here, The O'Meara course construction was about 6 months in, that was 2001. Then, late 2001, we started The Montgomerie Course. O'Meara opened in 2002, Montgomerie in 2003."
Carton House has developed a history of hosting some of the biggest names in sports over the last 15 years, as well as our home-grown superstars, the estate has welcomed global superstars like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Mark recalls the when Messi was in town with the Argentinian team a few years back. "There was a gang of kids and their parents waiting to see Messi just outside the training pitch's. When Messi made his way over from the hotel he was hanging onto the back of a golf cart, it must have been the cart drivers first go at a golf cart because he was zig-zagging up the road to the training pitch. When they reached the pitch, Messi jokingly, threw himself off the cart into a tumble landing! It was just surreal to see this icon messing about, it just goes to show though, that they are just human, having the craic, if only Barcelona knew!!" joked Mark. "Well he then walked out onto the training pitch and started practicing free kicks. Man United's keeper Romero was in goals, Messi took about a dozen free-kicks, every time the ball nestled into the top corner and Messi would just raise his hand in apology to the hapless Romero. 'That's Messi!' I thought."
So what about the training facility. The training pitches were built with topsoil and had about 3" of sand integrated into the top of the surface. "We have built up a nice surface layer through topdressing and over-seeding 4 or 5 times a year. As soon as the Lions leave us, we have 120 tonnes of Wexford sand to put down." The training area can hold either two full size football or rugby pitches side by side, or a single Gaelic pitch with the same dimensions of the famous Croke Park pitch. The area is kept private and secluded by a high fence around the perimeter. It is looking absolutely pristine in the sun. "We put down an ICL Sierrablen Spring Starter 25-4-13, slow release fertiliser a couple of weeks back. Yesterday, we threw down a liquid feed just to gloss it up a little and put down a little iron as well. We are lining out the 2 rugby pitches this morning and tomorrow we will cut the pitches at a height of 30mm, box and collect the clippings." Mark tells me that he prepares a cutting height of 30mm for Gaelic and rugby and a height of 23mm for soccer.
The team are constantly having to change the pitch type from one sport to another to cater to the Hotels guests. They had the Wexford GAA football team in last week, the Lions in this week for rugby and they will be going back to GAA next week when they host the Kilkenny Hurling team. Try not to get dizzy, but the following week again, they are going to go back to rugby to host the IRFU as they prepare for their summer tour. "Then in July we will have pre-season soccer, Burnley FC and Ipswich Town are booked in, so we will have to set up for soccer again. Switching from rugby to Gaelic is fine, but switching from rugby to soccer can be a hassle because the rugby posts have to come down and that is a day's work for two lads. We stay on top of things through careful planning and have a monthly planner system in place. If a team books in, it goes into the hotels planner system. After that we get flagged on it on our system and we make sure we well prepared for any shifts in type of pitch we will need to have ready."
Mark, Joe and the rest of the team have to constantly remark pitches to suit the sport that their guests are affiliated to, so how do they cope? The dimensions of the pitches are marked at every corner with a Plifix markers, these markers are carrot shaped markers with artificial grass tuft heads. You can barely see them in the grass and come in a variety of different colours. They mark out the corners of the GAA pitch with yellow Plifix Grass Tufts, the two soccer pitches with white markers and the two rugby pitches with blue ones. Then they use laser line marking machines to mark out the lines. At one marker you put down your laser and then put the laser receiver at the next marker. So the very first job for Joe when he is marking out the pitch is to find the grass tuft markers.
After the Six Nations, Mark tells that pitch one took was in a bad state, pitch one is flanked by 2 observation towers. "During the Six Nations, the two towers we have for doing the stats on the players are overlooking pitch one, so the IRFU lads used pitch one most of the time, we tried to alternate, but they used pitch one 70% of the time. At the beginning of April, we got out verti-cutting, top-dressed and over-seeded the pitch. It's only really back from the dead now after all the line out drills and scrums."
What about Irrigation & Drainage? Mark says that the drainage on the training facility area was great even before they built the pitch with the superb drainage system in place. The system consists of a host of main drains that run under the surface of the training ground divided by a width of 9m, the main drains are fed water by sand slits, 1 meter apart, that run adjacently to the main drains. He also sometimes uses wetting agents on the pitches to help prevent water from pooling on the pitch surface. So unlike when he uses wetting agents on his greens in the summer to get them to take the water, he actually uses the wetting agent to get the water off the training pitch surface by breaking through the soil quicker. The pitch is kept well irrigated too, they use a Hunter irrigation system which has 22 stations and Mark tells me that football teams like to give it a run before their training sessions to get a slicker surface.
What machinery do you have available to you? Mark tells me that because of the two championship course on site, they pretty much have every machine they need available to them, sprayers tractors etc. They use a Toro 5610 fairway mower to cut the training pitches. "We use a fairway mower to cut the pitches, not the push mowers like some of the premiership clubs in the UK." For verti-cutting, Mark likes to use a Toro 5610 with verti-cutting heads on it, he has also uses a Sisis Veemo on the pitch. For over-seeding they used a Vredo or a Blec seeder but at the minute he is using a Moordrill over-seeder. The machinery used by the team is mostly owned outright by the Carton House Estate.
Does the training area suffer from any regular natural occurrences such as flooding, high winds, excessive frosts etc.? "Frost! It is a pocket for frost, if it is 0°C in Maynooth, it's going to be -3°C here! We actually got snow mould on the training pitch before, it is the only time the pitch has been infected with disease and the only time we had to use a fungicide on the pitch. We never had trouble with disease on the pitch other than that, our main issue is usually wear and tear."
This is the second time the British & Irish Lions have dropped in, why are the best teams in the world coming to Carton House? "I think it is the whole facility really, the hotel is beautiful, the pitches are in great condition, secluded. They can relax and have use of the golf courses. There's also an adventure facility where they can try off-road driving and biking among other things. Kian Healy is a big fan of the off-road track. The food! Especially the IRFU, those lads can certainly put it away too!!"
Any special preparations for hosting huge teams, like the Lions? "Nothing major, except obviously the pitches have to be pristine, but it would have to be like that for the IRFU anyway. There is more managing of guys coming in & out with jeeps and caddy cart etc. Generally more bodies knocking about and we have to have security on the gate. Extra signage, we have to be careful of the irrigation system when hammering pins and poles into the ground."
Any upcoming projects? "We are talking about resurfacing pitch one, coring it, taking the sward right down to the base again, re-draining and over-seeding it. It is always hard to get the time for such renovations, if we go ahead and take the whole surface off (full renovation), it will leave us with just one pitch for up 6 weeks. If we decide to do the drainage alone without taking the surface off, we will only need about 10 days." A recent project Mark and the team have carried out is the perimeter fence around the facility. "Real Madrid requested that. It is great though and the teams appreciate the privacy. We do often get young fellas trying to hop the fence, but in fairness to the lads, you want a kick about on a good pitch." Laughs Mark.
Team Effort, "We are very lucky here at Carton House to have such an excellent team. That's really how we have gotten such a good reputation and how we make sure that all these great teams keep coming back to us. From the hotel office to the workshop to the golf course, it is really only with the teamwork of a great group that we continue to be considered one of the best sports training centres for professional teams in Europe."
Author: Mark Laffan ( follow Mark on twitter here )