UTAS Stadium in Launceston has long been regarded as Tasmania’s home of AFL. Over the years it has become a primary hub for state and community football and cricket, always carrying a reputation for being one of the best presented and conditioned boutique stadiums in Australia. As ATM editor Brett Robinson discovers, that status has been further enhanced thanks to a multimillion-dollar surface redevelopment carried out last spring.
Bryan Dunn had extra reason to look forward to ANZAC Day 2020. As well as marking one of the most sacred days on the Australian calendar, the head curator of University of Tasmania Stadium in Launceston was also relishing the prospect of showcasing one of the best conditioned arenas in the country for its first AFL fixture of the 2020 season.
The Round 6 clash was supposed to be an unveiling of sorts for UTAS Stadium. Between August and November last year, the premier arena in the northern part of the state underwent the biggest makeover in its history. Hawthorn, which has called Launceston its second home since 2001, were due to play 2019 premiers West Coast, the first of our four scheduled Hawks home games for 2020.
The ground had earlier hosted AFLW in February and a Marsh Community Series pre-season match in the first week of March, drawing widespread praise of its pristine new ryegrass surface. It was then all about gearing up for the ANZAC Day clash and showcasing the new-look ground to the Tasmanian and AFL public. Unfortunately, a global pandemic would get in the way and ruin those plans.
Not to be denied, Dunn and his team still did their bit to make sure ANZAC Day was remembered. While many around the country held dawn vigils at the end of their driveways, the day before Dunn and crewmate Adam Spargo went out onto the ground and painted a giant red poppy with the words ‘LEST WE FORGET’ emblazoned underneath. A number of other turf managers would do likewise in an ANZAC Day that few will forget.
UTAS Stadium, or York Park as it was originally known, has been a prominent part of the fabric of Launceston for nearly a century. Opened in 1921, the site was initially the city’s showgrounds, located on a floodplain adjacent to the North Esk River. Over time the ground became a focal point for local and state Australian Rules football and up until the late 1990s was still your typical suburban style ground, one where you could drive your car up to the boundary fence.
That changed in 1999 when the facility was redeveloped to the tune of $6.4 million. A new two-tiered grandstand was constructed, while the ground underwent a major overhaul with a new drainage and irrigation system. Completed in 2000, the following year AFL landed in Tasmania, with Hawthorn playing the very first premiership game there against Adelaide. By 2003, the Hawks were playing four games a year and in 2007 inked a deal to increase that to five games (four premiership and one pre-season) which has remained in place to the current day.
Despite rebuilds and additions to the ground’s various grandstands over the years, up until last year the UTAS Stadium surface and its infrastructure hadn’t been touched. As Dunn explains, the ground was starting to show its age and becoming increasingly difficult to manage. Despite that, he and his crew always presented it in sublime condition for its AFL matches and heavy schedule of local football. That conditioning, however, masked a number of underlying issues.
Last year’s surface redevelopment is the culmination of a number of projects which over the past seven years have modernised the surfaces within the UTAS Stadium precinct. The precinct also includes the adjacent Invermay Park, the home ground of Australian cricketing great Ricky Ponting.
Such works began in 2013 when the main ground, then named Aurora Stadium, became the first in Tasmania to install drop-in wickets in a bid to attract first-class cricket. As was featured in ATM Volume 16.2 (MarchApril 2014), Richard Winter and his team at Pitchcraft constructed and installed the drop-in in time for a series of matches that summer.
In the years since, the number of dropins have increased to three (two Legend and one Santa Ana wicket) and the ground now regularly hosts BBL, WBBL and Tasmanian Premier League matches (a total of six games last summer). More recently a new 28m-wide practice facility was constructed which can house a total of 12 ryegrass wickets.
With cricket setting up home on the main arena over summer, the next focus was the $2.1 million upgrading of Invermay Park in 2015. Invermay hosts a full schedule of local cricket and football each year. The project saw a new ryegrass playing surface constructed from the subgrade up, as well as 30m-high light towers and related civil works.
Attention then turned to the main arena. In 2017, the City of Launceston, which owns the ground, announced that it was going to fully reconstruct the surface with a completion date ahead of the 2018/2019 cricket season. When the plan was unveiled, City of Launceston general manager Michael Stretton noted, “The lifespan for a playing surface of this standard is about 10 years. The current surface has been in place since 1999, and its longevity is a testament to the skill and expertise of our UTAS Stadium ground staff.”
Sportsfield construction technology has progressed substantially since 1999 and there were a number of shortcomings that were becoming noticeable with the surface. Among the major issues were poor drainage, uneven levels, organic matter build-up and Poa annua had started to dominate the sward. Add to that aging infrastructure – the irrigation system, perimeter fence and the electrics and cabling for signage, communications and broadcasting and the ground was ripe for a revamp.
“It was becoming increasingly difficult to manage as each year went by,” explains Dunn, who has been head curator since 2006. “Drainage was a major issue. We would get 10mm of rain and the ground would become a lake. With the volume of local football in winter, it sometimes got in pretty bad shape.
“In the 1999 redevelopment the surface was built flat. The ground is on a floodplain – the river is only 100m off the eastern boundary line – and over the years had shifted a bit and we started getting a lot of low areas. The perimeter was above the ground and water would simply flow towards the centre making it very difficult for water to get away.
“The push to get the ground redeveloped I guess started when we installed the drop-ins. When we built the base for the tray, we found one end had 130mm of drainage aggregate and the other had 60mm. It hadn’t been screened and looked like it had come straight out of a river bed! The ag pipes were at different levels due to the ground shifting.
“With the arrival of first-class cricket, we wanted to improve the outfield and eliminate any risk of games being called off. The shape of the ground was unusual as well. It was wider down the southern end and had very deep pockets, so the redevelopment would make it a much more standardised shape.”
This article was originally published in Volume 22.2 of the Australian Turfgrass Management Journal.
Images: Brett Robinson
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