Across The Laighin: the Mick Dawson Interview
January 22, 2021 11:03 am Marcus Ó Buachalla
‘Across The Laighin’ is a new quarterly magazine published exclusively for the benefit of Official Members.
The first issue went live before Christmas and over the coming weeks we will be giving Leinster Rugby supporters access to excerpts from some of the interviews and feature pieces.
We start with an interview with Leinster Rugby CEO, Mick Dawson, who, in 2021, will celebrate 20 years at the helm.
Before Christmas he sat down and gave his thoughts to ‘Across The Laighin’ about Leinster Rugby then, now and into the future.
“During Covid, it’s not been ideal being away from the office but luckily I don’t live too far away from our base so when it was allowed it was easy for me to come in when there was business to take care of. I enjoy coming in and being around the place.”
Dawson is coming up to his 20th year of being ‘around the place’. He has been CEO of Leinster Rugby since November 2001 and has seen plenty of good times but will readily admit that timing is everything.
“If I went for the job today, I think I’d struggle to get it, there’d be far more candidates for a start.
“In fact, I didn’t get the job the first time I applied. Initially, I went for it and another candidate got the job and that was it as far as I was concerned, back to Davy (Stockbrokers) I went.
“Then the position became available again a year or so later and I went for it again and this time I got the nod so I’ve been here ever since.”
The Back Story
Dawson is from Dublin and from a family with a huge interest in the game. He went to school in CUS and played with Lansdowne FC after leaving school. After hanging up the boots, he threw himself into matters away from the field.
He managed the first XV and was also Director of Rugby with Lansdowne between 1998-2001 and served on numerous committees. He was due to be President of Lansdowne for the 2003/04 season but with his new role in Leinster Rugby, he had to step aside.
He knew the way the system worked and knew that to make rugby or indeed any organisation tick, you needed good people around you.
In November 2001 it was now up to him to make Leinster Rugby tick.
“We had a great spirit in those early days. Great people in that office and in and around Leinster and all working very hard at something that we all believed in. And then it was about taking baby steps. That portacabin was based where the Ken Wall Centre of Excellence is now in Energia Park, so that was my first office.
“Then we moved to an office over what is now the O’Brien’s off-license in Donnybrook, then to above MAO restaurant, again in Donnybrook, and then finally, thanks to David and Cathy Shubotham, to UCD.
“But up until the move to UCD in 2012 the office and domestic staff were separate from the team. The team were in Belvedere initially or later on again training out of Riverview. Bringing it all together under one roof was a huge statement of intent and how we wanted to build the dual mandate of professional and domestic as one.
“We are now in UCD for the last eight years or so and it is a brilliant, purpose-built, and kitted-out facility. But it was far from that we started out.”
Over the course of the next while he recounts various stories and it is first name terms still.
Denis. Phil. Anne. Kurt. Collie. Elaine. Marion.
There was the late Brian Purcell, after whom the U-20 Purcell Cup is named. There was Lorraine Gaffney, wife of Alan Gaffney, who was there for a time. Valerie Keogh and Anne McInerney, both sadly now deceased, played significant roles in the inner workings of the office and the administration of the domestic game.
Ultan Daly, the groundsman in Donnybrook, still there doing trojan, often unseen, work behind the scenes to keep the venue going. Eleanor Ryan, who joined six months or so after Dawson, and has been there ever since working away diligently on the financial side of the organisation.
He acknowledges that the list goes on of people that played a part in those early years as he got to grips with the job at hand.
If A Ball Needs Pumping?
The legacy of those early years lives on though as Dawson has a saying that he still uses to this day.
“If a ball needs pumping, you pump it,” he says with conviction.
“Valerie Keogh, who is no longer with us sadly, first introduced me to that phrase in my first couple of days and it just stuck with me. It’s brilliant. So simple. I asked her what she did in the office and her reply was ‘I do whatever needs to be done. If a ball needs pumping, I pump it.’
“It was a great lesson for me in a time before job specs really and a HR manager to put shape on roles. Instead, you had enthusiasm and if something needed to be done, it was done.
“So that is where it stemmed from and I feel that we still have that ethos here today. We don’t have the biggest and most resourced of teams in the office but we all put our shoulders to the wheel and apply ourselves in any way that we can to the challenge at hand.
“Today, together with Kevin Quinn, Head of Commercial and Marketing, you have Phil Lawlor and his team on the domestic rugby side of the house and of course Guy Easterby as Director of Rugby Operations and Leo Cullen as Head Coach, on the professional team side of the house.
“I think it’s not a bad way to be in any organisation. Everyone – and I mean employees, executives and volunteers – chipping in for the common good.
“I mentioned the great people in the office but you have to remember that I am on numerous committees and boards where great people operate. The Executive, Management, Commercial, Finance, the Professional Game Board to name but a few.
“Back then the likes of Paul McNaughton and Brian McLoughlin were invaluable and I was very fortunate also that I had someone of Ray Ryan’s calibre as Honorary Treasurer beside me for over 15 years. Today we are blessed to have people like Frank Sowman, Frank Doherty, Billy Murphy to name but a few.
From Baby Steps to Giant Leaps
Coming up on his 20th year in the hot seat, it is a remarkable stint as the head of one of Europe’s, if not the world’s, leading clubs.
“We have been very lucky with some of the strategic decisions that we have made. Moving from Donnybrook to the RDS, building the stand in Donnybrook, the two artificial pitches in Donnybrook, the move to UCD, some of the coaching appointments, players we have signed from abroad, the investment in the club and the school game, and building the Ken Wall Centre of Excellence. Attracting big sponsors and partners like Bank of Ireland. That was another key moment in 2007.
“We have published maybe three or four strategic documents but the reality is that by the time they’re finished a lot of what you set out to do has been achieved, then you start again and the landscape could have changed further.
“But the strategic documents were crucial for us as a team in understanding what we were about and where we wanted to get to as an organisation with a dual mandate. Now as a professional team our annual targets are European quarter-finals and PRO14 semi-finals every year at a minimum.
“The domestic targets are also well established but ultimately it’s about putting a ball into the hands of boys and girls all over the 12 counties and them enjoying the game of rugby.
“We have to also acknowledge that a lot of the off-field success is predicated on the professional team doing well and that helps to rise all boats. It’s the flagship but it’s also very much like an iceberg.
“That is the bit that everyone on the outside sees but there is a huge amount going on here in our clubs, our schools, our communities and the base for the game in Leinster should be as broad as possible. The schools system has been well documented but the growth of the club system through the Bank of Ireland Shane Horgan Cup and the age grade area representative sides and the women’s game has been another huge growth area for us. Ultimately we want as many people as possible playing the game and if we do that part well, the more options we will have for our men’s and women’s teams.“
20 Years as Decision Maker – The Best Decision?
“That is an easy one. The move to the RDS Arena is the best thing we ever did.
“Up until 2007, Donnybrook was great, to a point. Friday night rugby was great. The support base was small but there was an energy. There was a great atmosphere in the place but the pitch was awful, facilities not great, nowhere to sit, no toilets.
“The infrastructure just wasn’t there so we needed to address those things. For example, you could walk up to the stand, having bought a ticket and look to gain entry and be told, ‘sorry, the stand is full, tough’. So we didn’t even know how many people were coming in.
“We needed a change and we found the ideal partners in the RDS. Conor Hanratty, our Head of Commercial and Marketing at the time, played a massive role in that transition, he really drove me and everybody else to get that project over the line.
“Unfortunately, what we found when we got to the RDS was a similarly poor playing surface but what we also found was a very willing partner, willing to make this work for both of us and I think we can all see what a superb surface we have now in the RDS and have had for a number of years.
“The RDS worked on the pitch, then installed floodlights, new changing rooms. Don’t forget they also installed three new stands at the North and the South and the Grand Stand. Significant outlay. It also gave us a footprint where we could do far more on matchday. Engage with supporters, engage with sponsors, the possibilities were endless.
“It’s been really fruitful and I’ve enjoyed a very good relationship with Michael Duffy their CEO who recently stepped away and now we have the very real prospect of a new development in the RDS and a new Anglesea Stand.”
20 Years as Decision Maker – The Sleepless Nights?
So if the RDS and the move to the stadium is his best decision, the one he is most proud of, what does he regret the most?
And before anyone thinks he rues the day Leinster Rugby signed Argentina’s mercurial number 10 or indeed Leo Cullen recruited his new backs coach, he quickly adds:
“I wish we’d have registered Felipe properly! Not just the registration but how we dealt with it all and the media fall out. The reality is that it was rectified within five minutes of the mistake being spotted but how it played out after that, and all that went with it, still plays on my mind. We should have just put our hands up and said we made a mistake.”
For anyone not familiar with the Felipe Contepomi story and his first few months in Irish rugby, he signed with Leinster in 2003 on an initial four-year deal from Bristol but an administrative error meant he couldn’t line out for Leinster against Biarritz in the Heineken Cup in December and instead Leinster supporters and Head Coach Gary Ella watched him pull on a Carlow jersey in the All-Ireland League.
“Look, you have no idea of knowing of course how it would have played out if Felipe had been available. We lost at home by a point to Sale Sharks, beat them then away from home. Who knows.
“To lose out on a player like Felipe, who was fit and healthy, and then how we dealt with it. It follows you around, it really does, and it still gets mentioned to this day. A world-class player, signed, and off he goes to play in the AIL while your team play on without him in Europe.”
The Head Coach
Leo Cullen. A Wicklow man, a Leinster and Ireland player and captain, and now a head coach.
But to his CEO, Cullen is so much more than that.
“First of all, I have huge time for Leo as a person. Full stop. A good guy. I have the height of respect for Leo the person and where he is from, his folks, his family. A really brilliant man.
“I have known him a long while now. He was a terrific player. Really good. And maybe didn’t get the credit he deserved. But he was just an inspirational captain and a leader. Let’s not forget he is the only man to have lifted the Heineken Cup three times as a captain and then as a Head Coach. I suppose he was definitely one of those that we had on our radar and saying, ‘yeah, he could definitely play a role here after he retires’.
“We would all probably agree that it came a season or two too early but those were the cards that he was dealt and not once did I hear him give out or moan or whatever. He did suffer in that first year but he just got on with it. And that first year has now been utterly wiped out by what he has achieved with the club since.
“He figured out a way that worked for him and he has been superb.”
“Yes, there was pressure there for sure and there were headlines but again Leo had a vision for how he wanted to play the game and indeed what the future of Leinster Rugby looked like.
“That future was based around the ‘From The Ground Up’ model that we live by in Leinster. It was about investing in our sub-Academy and our Academy. Having a team of 90 per cent plus of home-grown talent. Inspiring the next generation.
“Leo is from Leinster, played for the club, he gets it, he wanted to build it and give those young lads a go to keep inspiring the next gang coming through.
“Leo could have complained in that first year, he could have looked for someone to blame but he didn’t, he just got on with it and I think what he has achieved and the other coaches have achieved has been remarkable and the manner in which he has done it too.
“Leo just went about surrounding himself with good, smart people. Stuart, Felipe, Robin, Emmet, whatever. Leo just wants Leinster to win and in order to do that he needs to prepare the players as well as he can for the challenge that lies ahead. How does he do that? He surrounds himself with the best people and coaches possible.”
The Sea of Blue
As he sits back and reminisces about the years, a constant theme that he keeps returning to is the good people within the organisation and also, the people that come and support.
“Bilbao. How special was that? The noise and the colour that they brought. Newcastle the same even though we lost, they were there in such huge numbers. And they have been for all the days, good and bad, in between and will be again I hope.
“I wish I could say that there was some masterplan to build that support base. We definitely had the best of intentions and Keira Kennedy did great work in this area and in particular identified how brilliant the RDS campus could be for families. We also worked with a consultant John Oates, who was with Newcastle Falcons most recently, around how best to attract the supporters. Over time we went from hundreds in Donnybrook to suddenly a few thousand in the RDS, to 10s of thousands in the Aviva, to supporters and season ticket holders.
“The reality is that the team and the brand of rugby they were playing attracted those supporters in the early days but I am delighted that so many of them have stayed with us. Last season we had just shy of 13,000 season ticket holders.
“This season with Covid-19 we have nearly 6,000 that were in a position to contribute to the future of the club with no guarantee that they would see a game. When we come back, and we will, we will welcome them back with open arms.”
As our time together comes to a close, my eyes are drawn to the project list on the wall of Mick Dawson’s office.
There are five items on the list, not insignificant projects at that. Some relate to the domestic game, some the professional.
There is a line through the Ken Wall Centre of Excellence which was officially opened in 2020 in Energia Park.
There is also a line through a naming rights partner for the RDS Arena and indeed for Donnybrook.
But there is one project still top of the list with no line through it. And it is that project that is still driving the fire within Dawson as he enters his 20th year.
“Yes, I would love to be sitting here in a few years’ time and with a completed RDS Arena the pride of the RDS and ourselves.
“I think if we can maintain the vibrancy that we have in the domestic game that is providing players for our men and our women’s teams, that we can keep boys and girls interested and enjoying the game in our clubs and our schools, and in tandem, complete a significant project like the RDS Arena, I think we would be in a very good spot.”
So a few more balls that need pumping before he is done. And a fifth star?
He smiles. He knows better than most that this is well outside his control and he has seen the best plans not come together.
He also knows that he has done as much as he can in his tenure to ensure that Leinster Rugby is as well placed on and off the field to deliver that, and more.
And you can’t ask for much more than that.
Leinster Rugby Official Members can access the full interview in the ‘Across the Laighin’ Official Members’ magazine.