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‘I’m a Northampton fan, so this is huge for me’ – Croke Park groundsman on working behind enemy lines ahead of Leinster clash


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With only a few thousand of their own supporters making the trip over, they’ll be heavily outnumbered at the game, which is an 82,300 sell-out at GAA headquarters.

But behind enemy lines, Northampton have support from an unusual source. The man responsible for overseeing the transformation of the Croke Park pitch this week, from GAA to rugby, is a lifelong Saints fan.

Having grown up in Leighton Buzzard, just “a couple of train stops” away from the club’s ground at Franklin’s Gardens, Croke Park’s pitch manager Stuart Wilson was drawn to the club from an early age.

“I can’t believe the way it’s fallen that they’ll be playing here. It’s a huge game for me,” said Mr Wilson, who has been in his Croke Park role since 2011, having previously worked as deputy in the Emirates Stadium, Arsenal’s home ground.

Wilson played rugby himself as an out-half and now his two boys who play too. They are keen Leinster supporters, leading to a divided household this week.

But first there’s a pitch to apply an extensive makeover to. Croke Park has not hosted rugby since 2010, when Ireland lost to Scotland in their final Six Nations game of their four-year Croke Park residency before moving back to the newly developed Lansdowne Road which was renamed Aviva Stadium.

The Croke Park pitch has changed since then, with a hybrid turf replacing hybrid synthetic.

“It will be a great test for it,” said Mr Wilson. “With scrummaging, you have huge weight forcing against each other and that creates a few issues. But we’re confident in the pitch quality, we’re very pleased with how it has got through the winter.”

The work to ready the pitch and stadium began in earnest within minutes of the Leinster football semi-finals last Sunday evening with the usual repairing, divoting and running the mowers over.

But in recent weeks the Croke Park team changed the paint to mark the GAA pitch dimensions, making them easier to wash off this week.

“We had a huge crew in on Sunday night, working on that, washing lines off, with the kind of brush that you would use literally to wash your car, with buckets of lukewarm water, washing it off as gently as we can,” said Mr Wilson.

The GAA posts were taken down yesterday morning and the rugby posts went up, anchored in previously laid sockets covered by the turf that were relocated using metal detectors.

The rugby posts are four metres higher and they went up in three different instalments. The Croke Park team marked out the rugby pitch measurements in accordance with world rugby guidelines.

Mr Wilson said pitch perimeter signage is also changing with signs at the Davin and Hill 16 ends being brought in considerably.

“There will also be camera positions on the pitch, but we’ll use the same flooring that we use for concerts to protect the surface. EPCR (European Professional Club Rugby) have been excellent to work for.” ​

Mr Wilson hopes to get the surface “slightly firmer” for Saturday’s game than it would be for a GAA game.​

“There are the captain’s runs on ­Friday which are important for the teams but a little bit trickier because match day minus one is really important for us. We’ll put the finishing touches to it on Saturday morning,” he said.

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