Being a capital city club with a vibrant schools and club scene, Leinster have many advantages going for them and not the least of them is that the Aviva Stadium has been the province’s home from home. And a lucrative and advantageous one it has been too.
Reflecting the golden campaign that was in it, Leinster played a record number of five games there last season. The traditional Munster derby in early October and their pre-Christmas, Heineken Champions Cup pool game against Exeter were supplemented by both a home Euro quarter-final against Saracens as well as a semi-final Guinness Pro14 final – both against the Scarlets.
The five games were attended by over 232,000 supporters and Leinster won them all. Indeed, the full house for last October’s win over Munster extended their winning run at the stadium to 10 matches, dating back to the pool defeat by Toulon in December 2015.
In total, since the old Lansdowne Road reopened as the redeveloped Aviva Stadium, Leinster have played 25 matches there, winning 21 and losing four for an 84 per cent winning ratio.
However, until the Aviva replaced the old Lansdowne Road, Leinster had a decidedly looser relationship with the stadium.
“Our first major event there was a Heineken Cup quarter-final against Biarritz in Matt Williams’ time,” Mick Dawson recalled from his office in Leinster’s UCD headquarters on Thursday as ticket sales inched toward 43,000 next door.
Remarkably, as the 2002-03 Celtic League had concluded in October of that season, Leinster had not played a competitive game for 12 weeks since completing a sixth win from six in the pool stages away to Bristol when they hosted Biarritz.
“Matt wanted to play the quarter-final in Donnybrook, because that’s where they played their home games,” Dawson also recalled of what was then their 7,500 capacity home. Truly, we’ve all come a very long way.
“I was very new in the job and, I suppose, naively ambitious to move the match,” added Dawson. “So we had a meeting with all the sponsors and I had to go down and meet the players and sell them the idea that there would be a lot more than 12 or 13,000. The players said ‘yeah, let’s go for it’. The Donnybrook pitch wasn’t fit for purpose anyway.”
The decision was vindicated by an attendance of 45,000, and it was something of an awakening. As Dawson put it: “It showed that if there were seats available, there was an appetite for these big matches.”
Lost their way
The draw had plotted a Lansdowne Road path all the way to collecting the trophy, with a quarter-final, semi-final and final all in Dublin, and in the semis they were faced by Perpignan, with the winners of the Toulouse-Munster match awaiting in the final.
“We were wondering would we go up Grafton Street or down Grafton Street for our ticker tape parade,” quipped Dawson. “Ourselves, the sponsors and the media all thought that all we had to do was turn up against Perpignan and we were home free. It didn’t work out that way.”
With a two-week run-in to the semi-final, in theory Leinster should have been less rusty, but they lost their way and the match 21-14. With a reduced amount of time to market the game and sell tickets, the crowd was marginally less, 42,000.
As Toulouse had beaten Munster 13-12 in Toulouse the day before, rather than the mooted all-Irish final, so Lansdowne Road was treated to an all-French affair. ERC managed to swell the crowd to 28,500, but thereafter would nominate final venues and begin selling tickets almost a year in advance.
Two years later, Leinster earned another home quarter-final in Declan Kidney’s sole season in charge, against Leicester. Leinster were well beaten, by 29-13, but a capacity full house of 48,500 helped ease the pain.
By then too, the financial parameters had changed and Leinster were receiving a bigger slice of the cake. What’s more, there was a realisation that a home European quarter-final was the golden goose, the one non-budgeted, bonus day out.
The tournament organisers, ERC, devised a system which the current body, EPCR, have maintained, whereby after 20 per cent expenses, if a club keeps a home quarter-final at their normal home, the two sides have a 50-50 split. But if they move to a bigger stadium, the home side keeps 65 per cent of the gate receipts after those 20 per cent expenses, with 35 per cent for the away side, which usually means a bigger cut for them too.
Toulouse had already cottoned on to the value of this financial stream, and a string of home quarter-finals did much to redevelop le Stade Sept Denier into the all-encompassing home ground it has been for many years.
As with le Stadium, ie the Toulouse football ground, the Aviva Stadium was also a bigger facility for Leinster in the same city.
“We’re lucky,” admitted Dawson. “In a capital city, there is a big population. Secondly, we’ve got a stadium which is a mile away from where you play every second week. So it doesn’t inconvenience the supporters, and very few of the teams that we play against have that facility. That’s a huge advantage for us.”
Furthermore, with a raft of internationals in their squad, most Leinster players are very familiar with the ground, so it truly is like a home from home.
The cost of hiring the Aviva Stadium is estimated it to be in the region of €300,000 and this is part of the 20 per cent ‘expenses’ incurred from the gross gate.
The IRFU have the right to hold a number of matches at the venue as 50 per cent shareholders with the FAI in the Lansdowne Road Stadium Development Company, which means the IRFU scooped something in the region of €1.5 million from rental fees from those five games last season.
Hence, if the Aviva is close to a sell-out, that is likely to generate gate receipts of circa €1.5 million. Subtract €300,000, and Leinster can generate up to €780,000 from a home quarter-final, albeit half of this also goes to the IRFU.
Still, this is close on to €400,000 which Leinster have not budgeted for, as well as the same figure for the union, in addition to the €300,000 for renting the stadium.
Last season’s quarter-final against Saracens was Leinster’s fifth since the Aviva Stadium reopened for business in 2010, and they have won all five against Toulouse, Cardiff, Bath, Wasps and Saracens – but it does have a financial windfall for the visitors.
They merely have to show up, and regardless of how few fans they bring, they return home with a cheque for around €400,000.
Semi-finals are run under the auspices of the tournament organisers, EPCR, who keep the gate receipts, and the same applies for the Pro14 come the semi-finals or finals.
In contrast to home quarter-finals in Europe, Leinster keep the receipts from their home match with Munster (as do Munster from the Thomond Park Christmas derby) and also their European pool games in December. They have hosted Munster nine times at the Aviva and today’s meeting with Bath is their ninth pool match there since December 2010.
Prior to this, Leinster played Munster in a number of matches at the old Lansdowne Road in a fixture that was in many ways the launching pad for mass attendances at Irish games outside of the Test arena.
“The biggest lesson we learned to them was the year after we lost to them in the [Heineken Cup] semi-final in 2006,” said Dawson. “We played them the following October, on a Friday night, under lights in Lansdowne Road and we’d sold 12,000 tickets for the match.
“We had a meeting on the Monday with all the stewards, and we asked ‘how many walk-ups do you think we’ll get?’ And we were told that we wouldn’t get more than 5,000 or 6,000 people walking up. About 35,000 people turned up at the match. We had to let almost 10,000 in for nothing.
“It was mayhem, and suddenly we had to look at our whole operation as to how we were going to handle these big matches – ticket sales, security, health and safety – because we had never experienced anything like this before.”
The official attendance was given as 27,252, but all had changed, changed utterly. The RDS hosted Munster for the three seasons while Lansdowne Road was demolished and rebuilt, although during this time Leinster and Munster met in the Heineken Cup semi-finals in May 2009, when a then world record 82,208 filled Croke Park.
Leinster returned to the Aviva on the Saturday night of October 2nd, 2010 when hosting Munster in the first professional rugby match at the venue, and which drew a 50,645 full house.
A 70th minute Brian O’Driscoll try helped Joe Schmidt’s team to a hard-earned 13-9 win. Leinster had lost three of their first four matches, prompting one pundit to venture that Schmidt had already lost the dressing-room!
That season, Leinster would also host Clermont in the pool stages at the Aviva, as well as beating Leicester and Toulouse there en route to regaining the trophy with their comeback win over Northampton in Cardiff.
Since 2010 Leinster have a strategy of hosting Munster and one Euro pool match every season, with knock-out matches a bonus, and to this end Dawson is grateful for the co-operation of Munster and both tournament organisers.
The exceptions for the Leinster-Munster games are in World Cup seasons, as in 2015-16 when it was played in April, and that will apply again next season.
Those two games there per season can yield around €2 million for Leinster, which can then be supplemented by around €350-400,000 by a home quarter-final.
The benefits are manifold, not least in that it broadens Leinster’s base to include supporters who might rarely, or never, go to the RDS.
“Great credit has to go to the people who work in here,” added Dawson, who also admitted that marketing games at the Aviva could cost up to €100,000. “There’s no doubt that the team doing well encourages more people to come, and likewise Munster doing well, as their supporters living in Dublin are more likely to come along.”
Last season Leinster won the double and made a surplus of €160,000. But the financial gains are not exclusively reserved for the professional game.
“We have a dual mandate,” said Dawson. “One is to run a professional rugby team, which is a costly exercise when you’re fighting on two fronts. We have 45 players, and we need them all, because you can’t win Europe without top-quality international players, but if you have top-quality international players they’re not with you for chunks of the season.
“Our remit is also to run and promote the game. The Union and the Government give us money and we’ve a service level agreement with the Union as to how we spend that money in terms of promoting the game.”
The schools do a fantastic job and you couldn't pay for them to do it
To that end, Leinster now have 60 development officers, which Dawson also readily admitted is supplemented by a vast army of unpaid volunteers.
Leinster have also laid two all-weather pitches and a new stand in Energia Park, and aspire to build five new Centres of Excellence.
The first of these is being built at a cost of €1.3m at the Old Wesley end of Energia Park, with a large gymnasium, changing-rooms, offices and meeting rooms, to be used by Leinster’s underage teams and sub academy.
They are looking to build others in Dundalk, Carlow, Athlone or Maynooth, and Naas, so that future versions of Sean O'Brien, Tadhg Furlong, Tom Daly, Peter Dooley and co, won't have to travel to Dublin for training.
“The schools do a fantastic job, and you couldn’t pay for them to do it,” admitted Dawson, “so all we can do is augment what the schools do and work with them. If we have five Centres of Excellence, no young player would have to travel more than half an hour. That’s the plan.”
Leinster are, of course, competing with the GAA at grassroots level, and abroad against financially wealthier French and English clubs, backed by benefactors and more lucrative television deals, so they have to keep reinvesting in their largely home-grown model.
With a turnover of €15million, excluding monies they receive from the IRFU towards player salaries, to this end, games at the Aviva are a lifeblood.
And whether it’s Leinster, or away quarter-finalists, or the IRFU, or tournament organisers, everybody is a winner.
Leinster at the Aviva
Overall. Played 25, Won 21, Lost 4.