Phantom Is On The Grass; Again.

The ongoing debate relating to the condition of the playing surface at Ethiad Stadium has again hit the headlines with Hawthorn President Jeff Kennett relentless in his criticism while voicing concerns relating to duty of care. Good on’yer Jeff. Somebody has to blow the whistle.

As a horticulturist with extensive experience in turf management of public playing fields as well as in urban garden situations I have watched and read with interest. Even from a distance it is obvious that there is a problem with the instability of the surface and that it appears to have caused injury to players.

The peeling of grass is similar to what happens to a lounge room rug on polished boards when children run riot. My understanding of how sports turf grows, even from a distance, indicates it is a no brainer. The turf is underdone and it’s root system is inadequate.

Without analysing the type of growing medium, depth or other salient cultural factors, and considering there have been a substantial amount of  intellectual, financial and physical resources thrown at the problem (what problem?) it is still obvious to an experienced and qualified observer that the grass is not holding. Many lay people see this. A few movers and shakers don’t.

Plant growth is governed by limiting factors. Without one, or all, the successful growth of plants is restricted or stopped unless they have evolved to grow in specific micro climates. Ferns, epiphytes and xerophytes, etc.

These limiting factors are light, moisture, temperature, nutrients and wind. A growing medium for the roots; this can be soil, a mixed medium or even water (hydroponics). This is the area where osmosis happens and the nutrients / water are taken in through the root hair cell membranes.

Carbon dioxide (taken through stomata) is also required.

Roots are also essential to anchor plants. (I am not sure how the itinerant ‘Trifids’ managed to cause so much havoc.)

Compaction is also an issue effecting premium (or any) turf growth. Compacted medium, especially around root zones is not conducive to optimum plant growth. You may have noticed where the players run out onto the ground or the cattle / sheep move through a gate on the farm the soil is compacted and grass won’t grow.

I believe the crucial issue with respect to the playing surface at Ethiad Stadium is insufficient light.

This associated with constant changeover of turf, crumbing structure of the medium (needed to allow drainage) having an effect on the root system, more specifically it’s capacity grow long and strong roots good enough to hold the grass rhizomes or clumps and bind the soil.

Constant wetness to provide a softer playing surface would not be an insignificant factor.

The issue of wear and tear on turf growing in less than optimum conditions also has an effect.

The performance of a turf grass root system relates directly to the performance of the above ground bits; the leaves / blades. As you would be aware photosynthesis happens here. That process converts carbon, nutrients and water to sugars and oxygen.

Light is a key factor.  Due to the structure of the stadium the playing surface does not get the amount of light required for optimum growth. Coupled with the winter less sunlight hours scenario at the peak use time turf, management will always be a challenge no matter how good the drainage and genetically modified (or selected) the plant material.

Heat from natural sunlight would not be constant.

Protection from excessive wind is a plus but there are too many other deficiencies.

It is well and good to scalp large swards of grass, or the entire surface, from time to time as the playing surface deteriorates but when the factors I have mentioned come into play the grass does not grow well enough to support a root system strong enough hold the turf intact. Hence the problem. (Again, what problem?)

The type of the grass cultivar / blend, the growing medium and other technical and commercial factors may give management and the AFL hierarchy some comfort. Their arguments are no doubt based on the best available contemporary research. But as we are becoming more and more aware, nature seems to always have the final say.

Also when plants are grown in a closed modified environment and totally dependent on human intervention there is always the increased chance of disease. I wonder what chemicals are used and what is the timing of the application regimes?

The plants grown in these conditions are less robust. There would also be an expectation of some transplant shock as the grass slabs are moved from nursery environment to the ground.

Also new cultivars, not withstanding their capacity to perform in specific micro climates or to a desired standard, usually have original but what are considered to be less ‘sexy’ genes bred out for economic advantage.

‘Plant rights’ is another issue.

I am not sure whether the turf has a synthetic netting system to hold it together. If it does, this will give lateral hold but not vertical hold if the root system is inadequate.

The micro climate within the shell of Ethiad Stadium and the usage pattern is not totally compatible to good turf management. Unfortunately the trade off appears to be an issue of safety, shrouded in denial.

It is time for the AFL to come clean, recognise the ‘bleeding obvious’ and do something about it.

There doesn’t need to be an inquisition, just a solution.


  1. David Downer says

    Nice one Phantom. It’s good to have some genuine insight as opposed to just “it’s slippery” or, as you point out, “what problem?” according to one delusional indivdiual of note.

    I walk round the Dome at lunchtimes and a quick peer inside reveals those enormous mechanical heat lamps covering the whole ground. Surely not nearly effective as the yellow orb in the sky -and resonably horrendous on their electricity bills, but in terms of sunlight there’s not much else they can do I guess.

    The heat lamps seem eeriely similar to those gimicky “laser combs” for blokes requiring some regrowth work themselves on the ole’ scon …er, if anyone’s had success with such instrument let me know and I’ll give TVSN a call.


    P.S: Our back-yard here in Aspendale is in similar disarray. Can you pop over on the weekend and have a look? We must be under attack by “itinerant Trifids” also.

  2. Danielle says

    hmmm, looks like i shall move my wedding to the MCG instead, although Ethiad might make a mean, tough dancefloor! :P


  3. Wise move Danni.

    The bonus of the option of an extra 50k guests could save a fair bit of disappointment among the Gen. X’s of Melb.

  4. Phantom – I’m a bit over footballers and/or coaches whinging about surfaces. They’ve got the best surfaces in the world!! Do you think they carried on about shifting surfaces at Moorabbin in the 70s??

    Here’s an idea for the players – WEAR THE RIGHT BOOTS!!!!

  5. I think you are being a bit hard there Dips.

    Those ankle length ‘Jenkin Topliners’ with the tri-tac layered leather stops, aluminium option for the rich kids (didn’t they give you a nasty, dirty, bleeding stripe or three on a cold frosty morning in the under 13’s) are not your standard supplied kit with clubs these days.

    The poor players have to take what the sponsors give them.

    I do, however, agree that there are some good surfaces around. I was at York Park watching the Dipers and the Cubs the other day. Fantastic surface (best in the game they say) and on an old swamp as well.

    Plenty of light though. And Tassy horticulturists. We know how to grow good grass over here.

  6. Tony Robb says

    Your insight into all things turfie provides good reading as opposed the dribble being sprouted on Sports927this AM by numerous “budding” Burkes backyarders.(Little horticultural pun)

    I would like to know from those in the know, does the members wing at the MCG see the light of day at any stage during the winter. It would think probably not, with the addition of the third teir to the stand. However, there appears to be no problem with thr turf. However, the ground at the MCG is heated and therein may lie the solution. By being able to maintain a reasonably constant soil temp, you are able to promote some ongoing growth in the normaly dormant winter. Either that or, as Dips suggests, tell the players to toughen the @$% up and stop bleating.

  7. Tony,

    the “G” is a bigger space allowing more air movement and longer periods of sunlight. The problem (What problem?) on the member’s side would be a little easier to manage. It would get morning light.

    The issue of quantum and quality of grass taken into a footy season is also crucial. Aca Dacca concerts and soccer / rugby games where there is extensive trampling of turf are uses that are not conducive to good turf availability.

    I think that I have noticed synthetic track in the high use areas outside the boundary on that side.

    The other issue of differentiation is use.

    A little bit of cricket over the summer and only the usual eighteen or so Collingwood home roster games per season surely would not put too much stress on the turf.

    The evenness of use over the ground is balanced out during the game. Collingwood play the flanks and the visitors play the corridor thus giving an even spread of wear.

  8. Phantom – I was a Ron Barassi plastics man myself. Hugged the ankle nice and high up the shin bone providing a lovely red chafing ring around the leg.

    Its a winter game played on damp grass surfaces – WEAR THE RIGHT BOOTS!!

  9. Tony Robb says

    Phantom. Again you have hit the nail on the head but I still think the heating helps at the G. Any thoughts on when they should be pruning roses at Flemington so they a prefect for Oakes Day?

  10. Tony Robb says

    Perfect I mean

  11. What sort of Roses Tony?

    Wild, Old Garden, Bush, Climber, Hybrid ‘T’s’, Standard Grafted, Minature, Streetscape, Carpet………….

    I have just received a box of old English National Rose Society ‘Rose Annuals’ from the first three decades of the last century from the estate of an uncle who was once president of the World Horticultural Society. Also a book on Begonias (1888).

    I find it hard to say no to old books.

  12. Andrew Fithall says

    #8 Dips. It is not just a slippery surface. The top soil moves because there is insufficient root structure to hold it in place. Longer stops are not the solution – they just cause bigger divots.

    This is, of course, all based on hearsay. Not having to venture from the comfortable surrounds of East Melbourne and Jolimont, I have no need to experience play at that indoor toy ground.

  13. AF – how much do you reckon the surface was shifting in the 1979 Grand Final??? WEAR THE RIGHT BOOTS!!!

    I’ve got to go – I’m off to China to find a football boot manufacturer who will make one with stops in it. I reckon I’ll make a killing. But what to call them?

    Dips’ Plastics?
    The Retro Boot?
    The Stop It?
    The Etihad Beater?

  14. Andrew Fithall says

    How about the “non-slippery-dips”

  15. Pamela Sherpa says

    Excellent article Bill- water, air, sunlight, .All a bit too scientific for the AFL to figure out.

  16. John Butler says


    I’m afraid I’ll have to join in disagreeing with you.

    A lot of players seem to be wearing screw-ins already, with little effect.

    AF #12 is right about the turf movement. Add to this the speed of the game that the harder surface encourages and you have a difficult combination.

    All those Moorabbin mud baths were played at MUCH slower tempo than today.

    If players can’t rely on their plant foot when kicking, there’s a problem.

    Great stuff Phantom. Very enlightening.

  17. John Kingsmill says

    Bill… I love this piece, Can you contact me please, at [email protected]

    I want to put you in a book.

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