THE SRU’S desire to effect a serious improvement in professional rugby in Scotland is manifest in their hiring of an experienced operator for the Edinburgh MD seat, and the new man agrees.
Mark Dodson, the SRU CEO, has followed his controversial replacement of Sean Lineen as Glasgow coach with Gregor Townsend by moving aside Craig Docherty as Edinburgh’s managing director and bringing in David Davies. The Englishman has had success in ice hockey, rugby, football and World Cup stadium development, but it is arguable whether any of those assignments will prove as difficult as making professional rugby seriously viable in Scotland’s capital city.
Speaking in confident, measured tones, the 54-year-old Davies does not sound like an SRU lackey, a “yes man” installed merely to follow the orders of Dodson. The SRU CEO is moving in a different way to his predecessor, Gordon McKie, and after boldly installing Townsend in Glasgow last year, has turned to an experienced figure to tackle Edinburgh’s failure to make significant impact on the capital city’s population and financial community in 18 years of pro fessional rugby.
Davies has been in position for just five days, but has swiftly identified finding a new coaching team and talented players, and enthusing existing supporters and sponsors as top priorities. He has also spent enough time with Dodson and Scott Johnson, the interim national coach, to know their views on where Edinburgh should be headed, and to know that they are “larger-than-life characters”.
But, while conscious of national needs, Davies is confident that he will not be pushed down a road he does not believe to be in the best interests of his new club.
He said: “The reality of any decision in any club is that they are almost always consensual ones. There are very few occasions in my experience of half a dozen or so professional clubs where the decisions are one person’s decision.
“If I draw on soccer and QPR, we rarely made a decision on a player where there wasn’t wider discussion. So the process here is no different to anywhere else.
“I had a chairman there very interested and wanting to be involved in it, and board directors equally interested. I understand that, here, some characters wear an SRU hat but the reality is that they are thinking about Edinburgh. We are a separate brand and I’ve seen nothing to date that would indicate that their interests are anything other than Edinburgh interests.
“I may have had differing views with the governing body [RFU] when I was at Wasps, but I worked with them, and I don’t see the relationship here as being fundamentally different. Yes, I might have to deal directly with Mark and Scott, but that’s no different in many respects to dealing with Chris Wright [Wasps owner], Ian McGeechan and Warren Gatland, where there was a consensual approach.
“While there we may have seen ourselves as independent to the RFU, there were still discussions about player protocols, the England coaches were still in the ground, the relationship with the league commercially about how you presented season tickets and business club, and interacted with sponsors, is no different to how it is here. I think our elbow room in what I’ve seen to date is no different to Premiership clubs.”
Originally from Leamington Spa, Davies studied sport in Newcastle, worked for a global US stadium firm, was a driving force behind the creation of the Manchester Storm ice hockey team, attracting five-figure crowds, and became a European ice hockey director.
Then he moved into football and rugby simultaneously when asked by multi-millionaire Chrysalis owner Chris Wright to head up his QPR/Wasps sports club. Wasps went their own way, but, when QPR moved into new hands and he agreed “an amicable split” due to conflicting beliefs on the best way forward, Davies was asked to return to the Wasps helm.
They had just lifted their first Heineken Cup months before, alongside the English Premiership title, and went on to retain the Premiership trophy in 2004-5. Davies then hired McGeechan to work with Gatland and Wasps claimed a second European crown in 2006-7 and another Premiership win in 2007-8, and oversaw the move to Adams Park in Wycombe.
Davies had a spell in music promotion and then, in 2009, headed for New Zealand when excited by the potential of creating the world’s first covered stadium with natural grass in Dunedin, and, despite a variety of tensions over the £100m project to replace the famous Carisbrook stadium, considers its completion in time for the Rugby World Cup in 2011 a career highlight.
In an emotional media conference last year, he revealed he would be returning to the UK this March to be nearer his two daughters. Now 54, he reiterated that as his reason for returning yesterday, but insisted that he retained the passion for a challenge, which was why Edinburgh Rugby had appealed. “I wanted to be involved in an organisation where I could leave a positive legacy and make a real contribution, in the same way that I had with Dunedin.
“The RaboDirect PRO12 is a really good league, that produces final four [semi-finalists] in the Heineken Cup year after year after year, so to have an input and help a team in that league was clearly attractive.”
There are positive signs with the SRU reporting a rise in professional and international ticket sales from 380,000 in 2010-11 to 420,000 this season, and Edinburgh’s Business Club growing. But a Heineken Cup semi-final appearance ensured last season’s season ticket rush. After this term’s on-field struggles and uncertainty over coaches, Davies will need to quickly stamp his imprint on the Edinburgh club.
New Edinburgh managing director David Davies on...
“The top three things are: stabilising the coaching situation; we’ll probably turnover something like 20 per cent of our playing roster in the summer, so in the absence of the coaching team we’re going to have to make one or two decisions without them; and we have our season ticket campaign about to start and want to get that away in prompt order and keep business club sponsors happy.”
Moving Edinburgh out of Murrayfield Stadium:
“I attended my first game on Friday and I understand what you’re asking, but that is not one of my priorities. Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
The influence of interim Scotland coach Scott Johnson in seeking new Edinburgh coach:
“When you look at his experience in rugby and CV, his contacts span the entire rugby-playing nations, so it would be a waste of a valuable resource not to have him leading it.”
Involvement of interim coaches Stevie Scott and Duncan Hodge:
“I see Steve and Duncan every day and we talk about players and their input is valuable to me. They are fully involved and will continue to be so until we decide otherwise.”
“Scottish rugby is clearly on the up. Ticket sales across the board are up 30 per cent, so the public are voting with their feet and Edinburgh, having reached a semi-final, have an exciting place in the mix”
“We play in front of 5,000 people, we’ve got good season ticket numbers now, and, where rugby sits in this city, there is room for further growth.
“I think I’m a really good people-person, in that I get teams to perform, and I have no reason today to think I’m going to fail.
Come back and ask me that in two years’ time and you might tell me I’m wrong, but right now let’s assume that I’m right.