Leinster Rugby, in association with the Official Leinster Supporters’ Club, last week organised a virtual ‘Town Hall’ event via Microsoft Teams.

During the course of the hour-long discussion, CEO Mick Dawson and Head Coach Leo Cullen answered a variety of questions submitted by supporters through the OLSC and Leinster Rugby.

The questions spanned a wide range of topics including a transfer wish-list for supporters, the Black Lives Matter movement, the RDS redevelopment and the protocol surrounding the players’ return to Leinster Rugby HQ last week.

Here are extracts of what Mick and Leo had to say on a number of topics:

An update on the RDS redevelopment? (Variety of questions from Aidan Savage, Marc Brown, Ray Kiernan and Philip Redmond)

Mick Dawson (MD): We are a tenant of the RDS. We’ve been in there since about ’07 and we have a 25-year agreement with the RDS. We have planning permission to build a very fine new stand there with very fine hospitality facilities. It would increase the crowd by about 1,500/2,000 people. It would be state-of-the-art.

The Government awarded the RDS and Leinster a provisional allocation of €10 million recently and we also have a naming rights partner in there.

I spoke to the RDS earlier in the week and I told them I was going on this call so I just wanted to see where they were. Number one, they have said they are 100 per cent committed to redeveloping the Anglesea Stand and those of us who know the Anglesea Stand will agree it’s time has come.

They’ve a board meeting in early July and we’ll also be looking at Plan B which is to knock the Anglesea Stand and build a not as elaborate stand but it would have similar seating requirements. The RDS is still committed to doing this work, it’s a question of whether it’s Plan A or Plan B and what they can actually afford.

No new overseas signings in the latest contracts announced, is it COVID related and cut backs due to the crisis? (Variety of contracts and player signing questions from Ian Garrigan, Michael Gavin and Emmet Kane)

Leo Cullen (LC): If you could get some of the supporters to put in their requests to Mick, what foreign player around the globe would they most like us to sign? And why maybe as well?

Maybe, I’m a little bit biased about trying to promote some of our own guys here as well, that’s probably a big part of it. First and foremost, we want to give opportunities to guys we have here. We know how much work goes into the development of the players all the way through grassroots, clubs and schools. And we want to make sure there’s a genuine pathway to come through for people. That’s a big part of it.

There’s market forces and I’d be curious to know from the supporters, what players would you want us to bring in from the outside? Because our first priority is to bring guys through here and that game understanding of what we’re trying to do, some of the players that we have brought in, not just on the playing side, but what they bring as characters to the group is so important. And their experience of the various different teams that they’ve come from.

Quite often, what makes sense or what doesn’t make sense to someone else, there’ll be something in our heads here that does make sense, the signing of certain players because we know some of the experiences that they’ve had. When I watch other teams, and other coaches, we’re always trying to figure out how they do certain things to get a deeper understanding of lots of those little nuances of the games of different teams. That’s an important facet.

What were your impressions of Adam Byrne and Linda Djougang’s pieces about their experiences as black athletes in Ireland? And do you think Leinster Rugby can do more as a club and as supporters? (Question from Niall Leadwith)

LC: I think we can always do more as a club. I always think we’re scratching the surface on everything that we do. I think it’s great that people share their experiences and we’re all learning from each other’s experiences all the time.

For us, Leinster, as the professional province, with ‘From The Ground Up’ as our tagline, I think it’s important we’re sharing as much from our experiences in the professional side of the game all the way through clubs and schools. We’re very open in terms of the environment here and we try to have a very open relationship with those clubs and schools. They’re very welcome in terms of their access and coming in to try and run different events in the course of the year. And that spreads then to this openness as well at grassroots level.

We’re able to get the reach of every player, male or female, that wants to come through and play for Leinster regardless of their background or where they hail from, that should be a realistic dream for everybody. We’ve had some foreign players from various different backgrounds as well and, all the while, we’re just trying to learn from those experiences. I think it’s brilliant that people are talking openly about their experiences and we’re trying to learn from some of those negative experiences.

MD: I think I’d reiterate what Leo said. It’s been an issue that’s growing and has probably been ignored by people of my vintage because we have little or no experience of it. I do think that our schools and our clubs are doing very well. I think we just have to support it, we talked about it at a management meeting with both the IRFU and the provinces about how we can make ourselves more relevant in supporting this case.

I think, we as an organisation, we want to be as inclusive as possible in every shape and form, whether it’s gender or race or whatever. I want to be fully supportive of this but I think we need to think about it and work out exactly how we can be relevant in helping this cause.

Will there be a match fee for tickets purchased through the Official Membership? And how much? If Government restrictions are eased, could a Season Ticket be re-introduced? (Questions from Jack Clingan and Ray Kiernan)

MD: There will be a match fee but there will be no uplift in prices from last season. They will be the same price as last season whether that be in the RDS or the Aviva.

Yes, we would definitely re-introduce season tickets and any money paid towards the membership of the Official Membership would count as a credit towards the purchase of those tickets. So, for example, if we got the all clear at Christmas, we’d sell half-price season tickets for the rest of the season. We’ll work it out here with the Commercial and Marketing team but that would be the plan.

Can we move games to Aviva Stadium if social distancing has to be adhered to? (Question from Aidan Savage)

MD: The answer is yes, it is an option. But, we have responsibilities to the RDS and we have a contract with the RDS so we have to work through these things. We’ve opened those discussions with the RDS, if we can’t get full crowds into the RDS, how can we maximise returns? And is going to the Aviva better? We also have to be cognisant of the fact that it costs a lot of money to rent the Aviva as well. I would have to speak to Leo from a rugby perspective where the players would prefer to be as well and where we think we have the best chance of winning matches.

At the moment, everything is on the table and nothing is off the table. We have contractual obligations to the RDS and there is a rental cost going to the Aviva but I understand the logic behind the question because if we have one metre social distancing, we’ve been told we can fit about 18,200 supporters into the Aviva which would be a good return.

What happens if a player tests positive? How often are they tested? Is there special protocol for those with underlying conditions? (Question from Kevin Johnson)*

*As an intro to Leo’s answer the audience was reminded of two interviews on www.irishrugby.ie that dealt in detail with the issues raised by Kevin’s question from an operations and a medical point of view – the interview with the IRFU’s Medical Director Dr. Rod McLoughlin can be accessed HERE while the operations overview piece can be accessed HERE.

LC: There’s so much monitoring that goes into the players on a normal week anyway but a huge amount of work has had to go into getting a deeper understanding into what environment the players have been in outside of here and who they are exposed to as well.

The players have to fill in a questionnaire every morning before they leave their homes, that’s logged into a system here. When they come into the building, they’re scanned for their temperatures and then they’ll go through their normal monitoring process as well. It’s pretty extensive from the players’ point of view to ensure the training facility is as safe as possible.

In the current system, if someone was to contract COVID, then we’re able to shut down that pod. The players were tested before they came back in so on the Wednesday of last week, the players and all the staff that are in our pod, it’s important to say also that not all the staff are currently allowed back. We’re operating on limited numbers at the moment. And, then again, this is very similar for all the provinces, we’re all operating under the same protocols. That gives you a snapshot of what the day looks like.

If somebody was to contract COVID, we’re able to shut down that group so, while we talk about baby steps at the moment, we hope to get through these different phases and we’re able to build up the numbers next week. We’re operating in eight groups at the moment so depending on whether it’s forwards or backs, it’s five, six or seven in the groups.

Eight groups will become four groups next week so the groups will become a little bit bigger and we’ll try and build that up week-by-week. The way we run our pre-season, we’re in a block of three weeks, we’ll actually take a two-week break after that and then we’ll come back in again for a four-week lead-in to that first game of the season, or at least we certainly hope the first game of the season, on the 22nd of August. Step-by-step.

So, for the moment, baby steps in the training environment and limit the exposure that players have. We’re not passing rugby balls at the moment but we hope to get back to some level of rugby normality as well. We want to make sure we’re very safe in taking those steps to get to that point.