Parched earth king hits sport

By Imran Ali

Persistent dry weather has opened up huge cracks in sports grounds around Whangarei - a situation that could delay the start of winter games for hundreds of sportsmen and women in the district.

Whangarei District Council, which maintains about 70 sports fields, is liaising with football, rugby and league officials on a number of options, including delaying games for different codes, or shifting matches to suitable grounds.

Officials were meeting late yesterday to discuss the options and the council is expected to make a decision on ground availability later today.

The southern districts' local rugby competition is scheduled to kick off this weekend and end in July but two rugby grounds - at Otaika Sports Park and Horahora - will be off-limits due to large cracks in the pitch posing a danger to players.

Council parks' technical officer Aubrey Gifford said players' safety would be paramount.

"The soil is very dry and the ground hard and in a lot of the cases previously where we've had cool season grass, this year they've either died or browned off," he said.

"We've done some work in the grounds prior to summer but cracks have opened up and some are big enough to put your hand through and players can perhaps roll their ankles playing in those conditions."

Mr Gifford said there was not enough grass cover on a lot of grounds and players could be injured when sliding on the turf.

He said the council not only had to focus on the games to be played during winter but on how best to handle the grounds for the rest of the season.

If the grounds were fully utilised in their present form, they would become "seas of mud" during the colder months when it usually rained, Mr Gifford said.

"One option is for football, rugby and rugby league codes to delay the start of their season but the other is to carry on but do so fairly selectively so it's a little bit of a juggling act for us.

"By this time, we usually throw [down] new seeds as part of our replenishment programme but we can't do that now until reliable rain comes," he said.

Mr Gifford said even delaying games may not solve the problem because if it did not rain, grounds would be in a similar - if not worse - situation when competitions finally began.

Northland Rugby Union operations manager Greg Shipton said grounds were normally hard during summer but this year they were worse because of the prolonged drought.

"We'll look at shifting the games if the council is worrying about the state of the grounds because the union's stance is safety first," he said.

Northland Maori rugby coach Shaun Haynes said playing on hard surfaces did make players a bit weary but it could also speed up games.

- Northern Advocate

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