After 25 years based at 1300Smiles Stadium in Townsville, the North Queensland Cowboys are all set to move to the new North Queensland Stadium for the 2020 season. ATM editor Brett Robinson catches up with grounds manager Bruce Fouracre to look at the end of one era and the beginning of a new one.
Bruce Fouracre recalls with a hearty chuckle the first few weeks of his tenure as curator at 1300Smiles Stadium when he arrived in Townsville 11 years ago. Having spent the previous 15 years working at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) alongside good mate, and cricket curating royalty, Tom Parker, Fouracre was looking forward to carving a name for himself in what his first ground manager’s role. However, he was brought back down to earth rather quickly. Literally.
Within a few weeks of settling into his new surrounds, the stadium hosted a major national motocross event, with more than 400 tonnes of dirt dumped on the Greenlees Park couchgrass surface. It was October, it rained the night of the event and temperatures were well into the high 30s.
Fouracre clearly remembers the ‘what have I got myself into’ moment when they started pulling up the boards covering the ground and seeing (and smelling!) the cooked turf underneath. But getting down on hands and knees, he could see some green shoots starting to come through and he knew he had something to work with. As he has come to appreciate in the years since, Townsville is a “great place to grow grass” and within six weeks the surface was back to its pristine best.
That is just one of numerous memorable moments Fouracre has experienced at 1300Smiles Stadium, a venue that, in his words, “has been very good to him” over the years. However, on Thursday 29 August this year, the stadium, which has been home to rugby league’s North Queensland Cowboys since the club’s inception in 1995, hosted its last official NRL game. In front of 15,141 fans, the Cowboys bid farewell to 1300Smiles Stadium with a 15-8 win over the Bulldogs, a fitting bookend to the venue’s tenure given that it was the same opposition the Cowboys had faced in their very first premiership game there in 1995.
Come next year, what will be their 25th season in the ARL/NRL competition, the Cowboys will be based out of the brand-new North Queensland Stadium (NQS). The Cowboys will raise the curtain on a new era when they face Queensland rivals the Broncos in the opening round on 13 March 2020 in what will no doubt be a sell-out at the 25,000-seat stadium.
While it is a new beginning for the Cowboys and their loyal fans, it will also be a new one for Fouracre and his assistant Adam McNeill. Although still looking after the maintenance of 1300Smiles Stadium for the interim while its future is decided, both will be transferring across to the NQS to manage the new arena surface.
Construction of the NQS, located adjacent to the Townsville CBD, began in August 2017 and as this edition was going to print works had just started on the pitch. The sub-grade, drainage and irrigation had been installed, with the first maxi rolls of Greenlees Park couchgrass scheduled to be laid in late January.
“The new stadium is going to be a true multi-purpose venue which will be a huge asset in the heart of the city,” says Fouracre. “It’s sad to be leaving 1300Smiles Stadium, but it has served its purpose really well and made a lot of people happy over the years. It gives a lot and doesn’t ask for much in return and has looked after me really well over the years.
“Being realistic, it was time for a change and probably the right time to move. It was getting past its ‘use by’ date a little and there were always things that were needing attention. Going to a brand-new stadium is pretty exciting. I’ve never had that opportunity before and it will be a great chance to learn new skills and be involved in something new and something big.”
While all the hype and attention is around the new stadium development, 1300Smiles Stadium bows out of its time in the spotlight having served the Townsville community steadfastly for many years. Located in the suburb of Kirwan, about 20 minutes east of the Townsville CBD, it has an interesting backstory in its own right having hosted numerous sporting codes and events during its lifetime.
It started out life as a harness racing track, known as the Willows Sports Complex, but with the NSW Rugby League announcing that a North Queensland franchise would enter the then ARL competition in 1995, the complex was redeveloped in 1994. The reconstruction involved removing the elevated trotting track and constructing a new playing surface and grassed spectator mounds behind the northern and southern ends. The existing western side grandstand, which has a distinctive bend in the roofline where the finishing post was for track, was kept and terraces constructed on the eastern side.
It was very much a community-based redevelopment and the story goes that the Cowboys players were involved in turfing the new ground and grass mounds, all up helping to lay some 12,000m2. Another story that Fouracre relays is that during one of their early games, which was badly rain affected, spectators started using the grass mounds as a makeshift ‘slip ‘n’ slide’. Concerned about the damage being caused to their handiwork, the Cowboys players pleaded with fans to stop as they would be the ones who would have to repair the turf!
Originally published in Volume 21.6 (Nov-Dec 2019) Australian Turfgrass Management Journal. Click here to subscribe to the journal.