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Leinster sold out 82,000 Croke Park in hours – they are one of rugby’s biggest successes

Jamison Gibson-Park of Leinster celebrates winning a penalty with teammates Dan Sheehan and Andrew Porter during the Investec Champions Cup quarter-final match between Leinster and La Rochelle at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin
Leinster are arguably peerless in club rugby circles at present - Getty Images/Harry Murphy

Leinster’s ability to sell-out their Investec Champions Cup semi-final against Northampton Saints at the 82,300-capacity Croke Park in Dublin on Saturday within hours of going on sale elevated their box-office status to a new peak.

This is a team that has won four European Cups (2009, 2011, 2012 and 2018), the European Challenge Cup (2013) and what is now the United Rugby Championship on eight occasions. Yet Mick Dawson remembers different times.

When he arrived to take up his position as chief executive of Leinster in November 2001, the Irish province was unrecognisable to the European rugby powerhouse it had become by the time he left his post more than 20 years later in March 2022.

His first office was in a leaky portable building without computers or email, behind one of the stands at their Donnybrook ground.

The facilities for the players were worse. Donnybrook, with its capacity of 7,000, may have been Leinster’s spiritual home in upmarket Dublin 4 at the time, but in the depths of winter the pitch was a bog and it was a toss-up as to which was worse: the players’ gym at nearby Old Belvedere Rugby Club or their changing rooms.

In those early days of professionalism, the team was relatively unloved too, only attracting a hardcore of regular support, reflected in a balance sheet that showed turnover barely reached €2 million (£1.7million).

Two months before Dawson’s arrival as the Irish province’s second full-time employee, the record books show that only 3,056 people had turned up to the ground to watch Leinster’s 52-14 victory over Pontypridd in their final home pool match of the Celtic League, the forerunner to today’s URC. Leinster would go on to win the inaugural Celtic League title, defeating Munster at Lansdowne Road in front of a crowd of 30,000, but it was a false dawn.

In the early years, Leinster were seen as a talented side with a soft underbelly. Four coaches came and went – Matt Williams, Glen Ella, Declan Kidney and Gerry Murphy – but Irish rugby’s sleeping giant stubbornly refused to stir.

Instead, it was Munster who would emerge as the poster boys, with their vociferous red army of supporters swelling European cities on the march to two Heineken Cup titles in 2006 and 2008. The term ‘Lunsters’ entered the Irish rugby vernacular, describing those fans living in Leinster who instead supported Munster.

Dawson knew things had to change, he just did not know how fundamental the consequences would be. The transformation began in earnest with the decision to uproot from Donnybrook to the nearby Royal Dublin Society showgrounds.

“Donnybrook had its challenges,” said Dawson, a former hooker for Lansdowne RFC, for whom he also coached. “Everyone said it was great, but it wasn’t great. We were never quite sure how many people were in the ground and I would say 80 per cent of them were standing, which was very limiting, and for a professional rugby team the pitch wasn’t up to scratch. We had two clubs playing there and a lot of schools’ matches on it.”

The RDS move was a risk but with its capacity of 18,000, of which 16,000 were seated, it enabled Leinster to tap into their nascent support, even if it meant putting the cart before the horse.

Leinster's James Lowe scores a try during the Investec Champions Cup quarter-final match at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin
James Lowe has been a key part of Leinster's irrepressible dynamism - PA/Niall Carson

“We did it on instinct rather than science, in the belief that we were going to a better place,” added Dawson. “We got the supply before we had the demand.

“The RDS had its challenges as well. We sold a lot of tickets but one of the stands didn’t have a roof, which was not ideal given the climate and we promised them a roof. There were no floodlights, then the pitch wasn’t up to scratch, and we had three temporary stands. All those issues were eventually elevated. The pitch is now first class, the floodlights are first class, the stands worked and now they have announced plans to build a new stand.”

From having no season ticket holders in 2001, the number rose to 12,000 and revenue climbed to €18 million. With the help of external investment, the squad’s training base moved to University College Dublin, with improved facilities. Donnybrook, meanwhile, was transformed, with two artificial surfaces installed to make it the base for schools’ matches as well as a centre of excellence for the academy, under-age and women’s sections.

The on-field transformation began, according to Dawson, with the arrival of Michael Cheika as head coach in 2005. He would go on to coach Australia and Argentina, but back then he was unknown and unproven. He played a critical role in overhauling the culture to unlock the squad’s potential.

“Michael came in at a difficult time when Leinster were underachieving and he put a bit of steel in them,” said Dawson. The moment of reckoning came with the Heineken Cup semi-final victory over Munster on their last visit to Croke Park in 2009, paving the way for victory over Leicester in the final at Murrayfield.

“Joe Schmidt followed and he took it to another level by polishing what Michael had created, and now Leo Cullen had carried on that tradition. Leo’s great strength is to surround himself with good people.”

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen before the Investec Champions Cup quarter-final match between Leinster and La Rochelle at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin
Leo Cullen has taken the torch from Joe Schmidt with aplomb - Getty Images/Ramsey Cardy

Success on the pitch grew their financial strength, while the work done in aligning the Dublin private schools rugby programmes with the provincial set-up by first Murphy and then Philip Lawlor created a world-class high-performance development pathway that has culminated in the province being awarded 10 national contracts funded directly by the Irish Rugby Football Union.

Such a significant war chest has allowed Cullen to bring in two world-class signing for next season, Jordie Barrett and RG Snyman, hype that has resulted in another spike in season-ticket sales for next season, when Leinster will play their home games at the Aviva Stadium or Croke Park while the RDS undergoes a €50 million redevelopment.

As the only professional club side in the Irish capital, and one that is playing at the top of the European game, one wonders where this will all end up.

“I don’t think there was any revolutionary decision, things evolved slowly and a lot of it was done without strategic planning. Leinster is the same as every other rugby club,” Dawson said. “We just play rugby, and it is a question of getting better at it.”

That it all began in a leaky building makes the success all the more special.

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