Leinster chief executive outlines challenges facing province
“That kind of change, when people are retiring . . . is always difficult,” says Dawson,
Leinster coach Matt O’Connor: repeats his assertion that developing a player of Heineken Cup/Test standard takes time, and without Jamie Heaslip and Seán O’Brien “you would lose the transitional pieces”. Photograph: Inpho
Mick Dawson is in his 13th year as chief executive of the Leinster Branch. In that time the organisation has undergone quite a transformation, from an under-achieving province which outgrew its old Donnybrook home to becoming the leading force in European rugby. But all that is now under threat from a set of circumstances which Dawson candidly admits is the most challenging in his time with Leinster.
“That kind of change, when people are retiring . . . is always difficult,” says Dawson, “but when you’re dealing with iconic players like Brian O’Driscoll and Isa Nacewa and Leo Cullen it doesn’t help.” Furthermore, Dawson notes, “the stakes are much higher than they were seven or eight years ago”, given the changed international marketplace means Leinster are less likely to beat the Toulons of this world to players such as Felipe Contepomi, Isa Nacewa and Rocky Elsom.
“The way certain French clubs spend money, it’s very difficult to compete for those iconic international names. If a player from the Southern Hemisphere wants to come from the Northern Hemisphere the only hope you’ve got is that he would prefer to come to an English-speaking country rather than France. You’re not going to be able to match them euro for euro and with their new television deal, the French clubs can put themselves into a different sphere from everyone else.”
At face value, Matt O’Connor’s timing as Leinster coach could have been better. He smiles and shrugs his shoulders but says: “That’s why it’s a watershed, those two boys,” in reference to the imminent futures of both Jamie Heaslip and Seán O’Brien. “It’s a bit like Leicester losing (Toby) Flood. Can you still be as good as you were? That’s the challenge, without those blokes, because you can’t make them overnight. You might make them in five years’ time, but you’re not overnight.”
As it is, Leinster are virtually unique in European rugby, with today’s side containing 14 Irish players, of whom 13 are internationals and 10 can properly be described as home-grown. “I think the basis of it, in relation to the schools system and the academy system is really sound,” says O’Connor. “Whoever’s idea it was, and I don’t know who was responsible for it, the academy being aligned, side by side (with the senior squad) was a masterstroke,” he enthuses.
“Relative to what I’ve seen, at the Brumbies and at Leicester, it was very much a separate entity. Here there is a genuine affinity across both groups and I think you get into those younger guys’ heads a little quicker.” That said, O’Connor repeats his assertion that developing a player of Heineken Cup/Test standard takes time, and without Heaslip and O’Brien “you would lose the transitional pieces”.
There are only so many like Jack McGrath, although the 24-year-old is a role model for the system – gradual rather than fast-tracked. “He’s amazing,” says O’Connor. “The attitude and the values and the things he brings to the group are enormous. His work ethic is unquestionable . . . but it’s not about rushing blokes earlier than they need to be. With a handful of key guys moving on you might have guys thrust into that and judged more harshly than they need to be because they haven’t had that time.”