Special feature: How the Stoop games are helping hockey to grow

Preparations at the Twickenham Stoop
By Richard Stainthorpe

Hockey has long been a sport synonymous with innovation. From pioneering rule changes to the introduction of video umpire referrals, a willingness to embrace change has been crucial to the sport’s evolution. However, few - if any - of these adjustments to the status quo have had quite the same impact on hockey as the arrival of synthetic pitches.

Since their introduction in the 1970s – most significantly at the Montreal 1976 Olympic Games, the first Olympic hockey competition to use a technology that has been employed at every Olympiad since – synthetic surfaces have changed the game almost beyond measure, providing a consistent, predictable surface which made hockey even faster and triggered the development of an array of new skills.

Over the past 40 or so years there have been huge technological advancements in order to constantly meet the ever-changing requirements of the sport, moving from sand-dressed surfaces right through to the development of water-based pitches and on to the water-saving surfaces that will be in use at the hockey competitions of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. While these high-tech surfaces often take months to install, the option of simply constructing a hockey pitch in any stadium you choose for one-off international matches has not been on the table. However, thanks to a ground-breaking partnership in the United Kingdom, boldly spearheaded by England Hockey, that dream is rapidly moving towards reality.

In October 2018, it was announced that Great Britain’s FIH Pro League double header against New Zealand’s Black Sticks on 23rd June 2019 would be played in west London at the Twickenham Stoop, home to Gallagher Premiership Rugby team, Harlequins. As The Stoop does not have a synthetic surface, the decision to move to the 15,000 seater stadium - which if at capacity will see the largest hockey attendance in the United Kingdom since the London 2012 Olympic Games – for just one day of hockey certainly raised a few eyebrows.

Preparations at the Twickenham Stoop

“It’s all part of our bigger plan to promote the sport, tied in very closely with hosting the FIH Pro League”, said England Hockey Chief Executive Sally Munday. “We have a really good relationship with the RFU [Rugby Football Union], so I called them and said we were going to approach a rugby club in and around London, explaining what we were trying to do and also the level of our ambition. They said, straight away, that we should speak to Harlequins. We then met with David Ellis, the Chief Executive of the club, to discuss our crazy idea and it soon became clear that we would work really well together. After that we had to see if it was technically possible, so we got a group of experts who know about pitch laying, how to protect grass and what sub-structures we would need and hammered out a few ideas about what could be possible.”

It is not the first time that a non-hockey specific stadium has been used. The Netherlands staged both the 1998 and 2014 Hockey World Cup events in existing football stadiums. However, there is a significant difference between what happened at Utrecht in 1998 and The Hague in 2014, where essentially permanent constructions were put in place for a relatively short period of time, to the temporary and endlessly repeatable model being trialled at The Stoop, a trail-blazing move which has happened as a direct result of a National Association’s desire to maximise the opportunities that come with the FIH Pro League’s home and away format. The ground-breaking developments that lie at the heart of England Hockey’s project could, according to FIH Facilities & Programme Manager Alastair Cox, be genuinely game-changing for the sport.

“If we can make this work, it suddenly means that hockey can be played in any venue anywhere in the world”, says Cox, who has been working in close partnership with England Hockey, world class pitch manufacturers and FIH Global Partner Polytan, innovative sub-base and water management experts Polypipe, natural sports turf research and development specialists STRI Group and Harlequins on the project. “There is a hardcore community in hockey that loves the sport and will go and watch it regardless of the venue, which is fantastic, but if we want to engage with the broader audience, we have to make it as an attractive, appealing and enjoyable experience as possible.”

With the upcoming FIH Pro League matches at The Stoop being something of a one-off, construction work is already very much underway. “There is a bit more time this year, so this has allowed us to remove the turf, level the ground and enhance the drainage to provide the platform on which the temporary hockey pitch will be put in place, this year and into the future” continues Cox. “The model for this year is that which would be used when hosting a world cup.”

However, thanks to some of the innovations currently being trialled, the proposed turnaround for FIH Pro League matches in the coming years will, says Cox, be incredibly quick. “The plan will be that they [Harlequins] play rugby one weekend, then we can build a hockey pitch over the turf and play hockey the following weekend, before taking the hockey pitch out and ready for rugby to be played the weekend after. So we’d be aiming to be in and out of a stadium - laying the pitch, playing the match, removing the pitch - in six to eight days.”

Preparations at the Twickenham Stoop

While many of the questions regarding exactly how achieving this quite remarkable turnaround cannot be answered due to commercial confidentiality, there are certainly plenty of reasons why the ability to rapidly construct a fully functioning international standard hockey pitch in virtually any stadium in the world would be hugely advantageous to the sport. Rather than having to spend huge sums of money overlaying an existing hockey venue with the required infrastructure (constructing spectator stands, broadcast and media facilities, marquees for hospitality, pitch lighting suitable for television broadcast), a ready-made stadium comes with all of these things and more.

We are hugely excited about the opportunity to work with Harlequins, not just for the upcoming matches and the fact that we are testing these new pitch technologies, but also the long-term potential relationship with them. They have got some really exciting plans for the development of their stadium, and for us to be in the discussion stages of how that could work for both rugby and hockey in the future is really exciting. We’ve really enjoyed working with them to date. Their values are very similar to ours in terms of how they go about their business, and we are excited about the opportunity we are going to get on 23rd June to see this new technology in action. We’re really grateful also to Sport England for their appetite to support this innovation and make it possible.”

The surface currently being installed at The Stoop for the upcoming FIH Pro League matches will be a version of Polytan’s Poligras Tokyo GT, the turf system that will be used at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. The surface - which is made from a sugar cane, a sustainable product - requires up to 65 percent less water than the surfaces used at previous Olympics. Polytan have been one of the driving forces behind the innovations that will be trialled at The Stoop, finding new ways to both lay and lift a synthetic surface in a very short period of time, doing so in a manner that will allow the surface to be re-used time and time again.

Also involved in the partnership are Polypipe, the developers of the Permavoid system which supports the turf by ensuring that drainage is provided in a temporary location whilst also allowing air to flow, keeping the grass alive over the period of use. The STRI Group have advised England Hockey on appropriate ground preparations at The Stoop to ensure that the grass pitch is ready for the rugby season.

Pitch trial at Bisham Abbey NSC

In March of this year, the project took a big stride forward when a temporary pitch replicating what will be in place at The Stoop was constructed at Bisham Abbey National Sports Centre, where Great Britain’s men and women trained vigorously on the surface for two days. It was a crucially important move, allowing elite athletes to provide vital feedback about their experiences. “A lot of lessons were learned at Bisham”, says Cox. “From an FIH point of view, we absolutely insisted on that trial taking place. It was very good for everyone involved and the feedback was invaluable. It is important that we get things right or the players will simply not accept it.”

Looking ahead to what promises to be a momentous occasion at The Stoop, Sally Munday said: “The opportunity for loads of people to see top level hockey live and in a completely different environment is very exciting. This is something that has never been done before, and if I was a hockey fan – or even a rugby fan – I’d want to see how this is going to work. I’d encourage hockey fans to come along and be part of a moment in history, because this is not going to happen for the first time again. Witnessing something which could be game-changing for the sport is pretty special, I think.”

Tickets for Great Britain’s FIH Pro League matches against New Zealand at The Stoop on 23rd June can be purchased by clicking here.