10 August 2021

Should all sports grounds in Canberra be closed when we have substantial rainfall?

| Tim Gavel
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Gungahlin Enclosed Oval

Gungahlin Enclosed Oval … it can get a little muddy. Photo: Supplied.

A vibrant and somewhat passionate discussion is taking place in the Canberra sporting community in the wake of the constant closure of sports grounds following a winter of rainfall.

Many struggle to understand why sports grounds are being closed so regularly because of rain, impacting training and playing.

There are many questions constantly arising from these conversations: what is the rationale behind closing sports grounds? Is it a safety issue for those taking part, or is the major concern potential damage to grounds? Are all sports grounds the same? If not, why are they all closed at the same time?

Shouldn’t we let kids experience what it’s like to play in the rain, in the mud?

Southwell Park. Photo: Tim Gavel.

Southwell Park. Photo: Tim Gavel.

Having spoken to many involved in junior sport in Canberra, it appears as though frustration emanates from a combination of issues.

I have no idea whether there are more injuries in boggy, wet conditions, but we do live in a litigious society prepared to take legal action in situations such as unsafe sports grounds. So there is a certain amount of understanding in terms of this consideration, particularly if there is good data substantiating closures due to safety concerns.

Another consideration is the damage created to the playing surface through activities such as rugby league and rugby union when the ground is saturated.

Rugby union played at Gungahlin Enclosed Oval.

Rugby union training at Gungahlin Enclosed Oval. Photo: Tim Gavel.

If you ever need evidence of the impact of play on a soggy playing surface, look no further than the state of the Gungahlin Enclosed Oval, which was opened in 2014 at a cost of $12 million (I’m not sure how much was spent on drainage).

The facility has four tenants comprising Gungahlin teams in AFL, soccer, rugby union and rugby league.

Because of the state of the playing surface, it’s impossible to play soccer there at the moment. As such, Gungahlin United won’t be playing at this ground for the rest of the season.

Nicholls Enclosed Oval. Photo: Tim Gavel.

Nicholls Enclosed Oval is used by the Gungahlin Eagles. Photo: Tim Gavel.

The Gungahlin Eagles, a club that I am currently involved with, play their home games at Nicholls Enclosed Oval, which has been significantly impacted by wet weather this season.

The Eagles have presented a petition to the ACT Government calling for funding for improvements such as drainage as the facility is used by a number of sports juniors and seniors year-round.

The solution would appear to be simple.

Money needs to be spent on drainage to make the playing fields usable during wet periods. It should be a priority.

The demand for Canberra’s sporting facilities has never been greater. We can ill afford to have grounds across the ACT continually closed because of wet weather. This season of high rainfall will happen again (and again), so surely we should look to future-proof our facilities so they can be used as intended.

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Need a rolling program to install more synthetic fields for those sports that can make use of them – big upfront outlay but good payback, in terms of increased ability to be used in inclement weather, and also reduce stress on fields that need to be natural turf for other sports.

Yep – more synthetic pitches needed. A bit of an outlay to establish them but after that, maintenance costs are lower than grass fields and they can be used in all kinds of weather and all day long without the ‘wear and tear’ that grass fields suffer. Has been the norm in Europe for the last couple of decades and now Sydney is starting to follow suite….maybe time for Canberra to do the same?

Now admittedly, I’m talking about last century, but I remember playing footy (I’m from SA, so AFL) on a particular ground which was so muddy after a night of rain, at the end of the game, some guys would simply walk into the showers wearing their whole kit (including boots) to clean the mud off. Even worse, was playing the week after the ground was a quagmire, as there were sections (particularly the centre, which doubled as the cricket pitch in summer) of hard dried mud – certainly took a fair bit of skin off if you happened to be unfortunate to come to ground. However, these days, ovals in general have better drainage, etc. but if we are talking grounds that are virtually unplayable because of the mud, perhaps the duty of care principle does come into play. I know it’s a bit ‘nanny state-ish’, but as the author comments, in this litigous age ….

Did you play AFL for the Crows or the Power?

Heavs, neither – came to Canberra in 1990, by which time my amateur league days were well and truly behind me. If you happen to know Adelaide, the oval to which I’m referring was at (then) Murray Park CAE.

Just my pedant gripe, but AFL is the elite tier of the Australian Rules code of football. I notice Tim doesn’t say his kids play for the Gungahlin Eagles Super Rugby Club. Or the Gungahlin United EPL club have had to move the rest of their games.

Going to have to bow to your superior knowledge on that one, Heavs, as I have no skin in the game in relation to kids’ sport.

The answer is yes.

It’s be great if this small minority of moaners acknowledged that it’s been the wettest Winter for a number of years.

These are likely the same people who at other times enjoy a whinge about poor field quality.

I’ve yet to see anyone suggesting that field hire fees be increased to cover at least a small part of the cost of the upgrades they’re demanding.

Or perhaps substantial fines should be levied on sports and clubs that damage fields and expect them to be perfect the next time around?

The solution is that the ACT Government needs to upgrade the drainage of all community fields which are currently used for sport and where drainage is currently inadequate. Many grounds have become unplayable this winter, denying kids and adults the opportunity to train and play. The pay-off for this infrastructure investment by the government will be wide-ranging: participants will get better value for the registration and other costs associated with different sports; grounds will be easier to maintain and repair more quickly after heavy rain; health and fitness levels across the community, with the flow on social and economic benefits, will be maintained; Canberra will be able to continue to attract national and international sporting events; and non-sport users will be able to enjoy use of the grounds year round. Fixing the grounds will also reduce the ACT Government’s potential exposure to litigation. Of course the cost of fixing ground drainage will be higher and this cost might be ultimately paid by the community in hire fees etc. but the cost of doing nothing will be much greater.

As day follows night any ground which has millions spent on upgrading the drainage will also have a fence put around it, stopping regular community users from using them unless they pay the hire fee.

Fixing up fields is expensive. The cost to make upgrades to these fields would be passed on through increased ground hire charges, making the game even more unaffordable for families with multiple kids playing.

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