'Leap of faith’ move to RDS Leinster's best decision
Mick Dawson hoping side can benefit soon from proposed €30m upgrade to RDS
Leinster in action against Montpellier in the Champions Cup last year. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
When Leinster host Edinburgh this evening at the RDS it will be their 151st match at the ground they have long since become accustomed to calling home, and no wonder. This is their 12th full season at the RDS. How time flies.
The RDS has a certain quaintness, much like Donnybrook had before the pitch suffered from overuse and Leinster simply outgrew their former home. Mick Dawson, Leinster’s chief executive, reckons the move, which was made in 2007, was probably the best decision they’ve ever made, along with transferring their base to UCD.
“In truth Donnybrook wasn’t fit for purpose,” says Dawson, who has been chief executive of Leinster since November 2001 and simply says “there is no comparison” between Leinster then and now.
“There were no seat numbers in Donnybrook, so you never knew how many people were actually going in there and you could actually have a ticket for a stand seat but not get in because the stand was already full.”
Nobody knew, for sure, what the stand’s capacity was (in the region of 2,500) or the ground itself, roughly 6,000 to 7,000. Come the mid-noughties, Donnybrook was regularly bursting to capacity, although Dawson admits that the province’s first issue with health and safety was when hosting Munster at the old Lansdowne Road in October 2006 in the then Magners League.
“We had a meeting on the preceding Monday, I remember it well, and we speculated how many we might get as walk-ups. We’d sold 10,000 tickets and figured an extra 5,000-6,000 would walk up on the day. We reckoned if we got 15,000-16,000, we were home free, and we had to open the gates to let people in for free because there was mayhem outside. About 35,000 people turned up. We didn’t have enough turnstiles opened. We just got it all wrong. That was the first kind of reality check from a health and safety perspective.”
The official attendance was given as 27,252.
By then, Leinster’s move to the RDS was already in motion. Their first match there was on Saturday, October 15th, with a 5.30pm kick-off, against the Cardiff Blues, in the old Celtic League. Attendance: 7,000.
“We had portable floodlights that came in on lorries, which were transported from the UK and were coming up from Rosslare earlier that day, and they were to go up over the back of the Anglesea Stand,” recalls Dawson.
“Conor Hanratty [Leinster’s then commercial manager] was very instrumental in making the move to the RDS work. He’d arranged for the floodlights to be brought over, and unlike me, he thrived in the drama of it all.”
The floodlights eventually arrived, were installed and turned on, but the teething problems didn’t end there.
“RTÉ were there and I remember John D O’Brien coming up to me and telling me: ‘We won’t be able to film this match, the lights are not bright enough.’ I nearly started crying. But in actual fact they did film it, and then we had four portable floodlights installed for our next game.”
Leinster won 34-15, as tries by Felipe Contepomi, Shane Horgan, Gordon D’Arcy and Ben Gissing secured a bonus point by the 32nd minute. Leinster would play four more games there that season. A week later, they hosted Bath in their opening Heineken Cup pool match, but despite an early 13-point haul by Contepomi, ultimately went down 22-19. In 30 ensuring European games at the venue, Leinster have won 28 and lost just two, also in opening pool games to English opposition, to London Irish and Wasps, who visit the RDS in the tournament’s opening game in three weeks’ time.
After returning to a combination of Donnybrook and Lansdowne Road in 2006-07, while the RDS was being upgraded, Leinster took up what has effectively become permanent residency from the outset of the 2007-08 season.
While “moving to the RDS was a big leap of faith by everybody”, according to Dawson, there were many attractions from the outset, not least the location as it’s virtually within the proverbial stone’s throw of Donnybrook.
“Conor [Hanratty] and myself discussed this and Conor was a great innovator. Sometimes we could go to Lansdowne Road and get 30,000 people to a match so we reckoned there had to be a number of supporters out there who didn’t go to Donnybrook on a regular basis.”
They had approached Michael Duffy, Dawson’s counterpart as CEO with the Royal Dublin Society and who, likewise, is still in situ. After the “trial run” of five games in the 2005-06 season, it was clear that the RDS had to be upgraded. It had only one stand, namely the Anglesea Stand, and the pitch, uneven and which easily cut up, came in for much criticism at first.
The RDS arena was stripped completely for the new drainage system to be installed, and the new pitch alone cost €1 million. “It’s a really unique, high-tech pitch,” says Duffy, who explains it had to cope with the sheer force of horses as well as rugby, while being maintained all year round. “You need a surface that can cope with both so it’s a customised soil and sand surface, with a gravel raft drainage system and it’s got a state of the art irrigation system.”
Not only is it now recognised as one of the best surfaces in European rugby, according to Duffy, but one of the best three equestrian venues in Europe. “So not only was it a win for Leinster, but for the RDS and the Horse Show as well.”
The total cost of the redevelopment, ie Grandstand, pitch, floodlights and dressingrooms, was €6 million, helped by a sports capital grant of €1.5 million.
Due to planning issues though, there was no roof on the newly built Grandstand for the 2007-08 season, albeit on the pitch, after a 52-23 defeat to the Scarlets in their second home game, Leinster went unbeaten at the RDS for the rest of the season.
Fortunately too, it only rained on one of Leinster’s 10 games there that season, namely for the 21-12 win over Munster in April which all but sealed the title. The home fans didn’t mind the rain too much. There have been disappointments there too, not least losing the Magners League final to the Ospreys in 2010, and again in 2012 a week after their third Heineken Cup triumph at Twickenham when beating Ulster.
A year after that though, Leinster won both the Challenge Cup and Pro12 finals against Stade Francais and Ulster at the RDS, as they would a year later, while their home fortress has contributed to their four European Cup triumphs.
The RDS reckon they have been on a winner too. Aside from the monies accrued from Leinster’s tenancy, the province’s move there has enhanced the profile of the venue and helped them upgrade the arena, thereby providing better facilities for their annual Horse Show and concerts.
This summer the RDS arena hosted four concerts in June (The Killers had 20,000 fans rocking in choreographed unison on a ridiculously balmy night), the Horse Show in August and, a week later, the World Meeting of Families.
“When I went there in 2004, we had the Horse Show,” reflects Duffy. “My office overlooks the arena, and when I saw the tractor out cutting the grass I remember thinking ‘that’s a really expensive field of grass to be cutting’. Fortunately at that time Leinster were looking for something and it’s worked for both of us. It’s been terrific to be honest. Leinster are very professional, and great to work with.”
In July 2014, the RDS and Leinster announced that a design competition was being held to develop the arena into “a 25,000 capacity world-class stadium” with work expected to commence on the redevelopment in April 2016. Their initial estimates were that the required budget would be €20 million, with the selling of naming rights to be a key component in funding the project.
Yet although the RDS and Leinster are believed to have reached an agreement with Laya Healthcare for €10 million over eight years to secure the naming rights, nothing has materialised.
“The reason that hasn’t happened is we don’t have the money,” Dawson conceded. “Simple as.”
The dynamics of the proposed upgrading of the RDS, and specifically rebuilding the Anglesea Stand, have also changed, with expansion of the existing 18,500 capacity now trimmed from 25,000 to 21,000.
“We reckoned that 21,000 is just about right for us,” says Dawson. “Planning permission has been granted and is ready to go. There is a naming rights deal in place. The RDS have money which they are prepared to commit and the Minister [Shane] Ross has announced that there is a fund in place for major capital sporting projects,” says Dawson, in relation to the Government’s fund for “large-scale sports infrastructure capital grants”.
There will be applications from various different sporting bodies around the country to support proposed projects, and the RDS and Leinster are hoping for financial support of €15 million for the redevelopment of the arena.
The costs of the redevelopment have now risen to €30 million. “The world has changed and building costs have increased,” says Dawson, who stresses that the project also has the full support of the IRFU.
“If this happened, it would certainly increase the revenue-generating ability of Leinster Rugby, and we put an awful lot of money back into the game and as you know the vast majority of our players are coming through the system. We have to constantly re-invest in our development officers to make sure they’re reaching out to our schools and our clubs. So while it would help the professional team a lot, it would also help the game.”
This has been the kernel of Leinster’s argument when they and the RDS lobbied public representatives. The RDS would also argue that the Horse Show is a flagship annual event for the horse industry (worth an estimated €800 million per year and involving 46,000 people) throughout Ireland, and has shown its willingness to accommodate other field sports, witness international football matches being hosted there.
“The stand has been there since the 1920s,” says Duffy. “It’s served its country well but it’s time to be replaced.”
Somewhat remarkably, Leinster are over halfway through the 20-year lease they signed with the RDS in 2007. The terms of this arrangement means that were the redevelopment to materialise, and the Anglesea Stand was knocked down in order to be rebuilt, Leinster would sign a new 20-year lease taking them up to circa 2038/39.
The RDS is Leinster’s home now and for some time to come.
Leinster’s record at the RDS
Played: 150. Won: 136. Drawn: 1. Lost: 13.
Played: 119. Won: 108. Drawn: 1. Lost: 10.
Heineken Cup/ERC Cup
Played: 29. Won: 26. Drawn: 0. Lost: 3.
Played: 2. Won: 2. Drawn: 0. Lost: 0.