To be an elite sportsman takes hard work, dedication and a certain amount of luck to turn sport into a successful profession. The sport of rugby has forever been overshadowed by the all conquering lure of football and only became recognised as a professional sport as little ago as 1995. It was around this time that a young Matt Dawson had just finished his teaching qualification and got a job as a PE and geography teacher in a local prep school. Excelling in all sports, Dawson even had trials for Chelsea and played for Chelsea schoolboys after being scouted at just twelve years old, yet his passions for rugby were quite evident Playing for Northampton in his spare time since 1991, he was able to chart the development of grass roots rugby from amateur sport to a global phenomenon in the space of just a decade.
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Making his international debut against Western Samoa in December 1995 was a defining moment for Matt and indeed the whole of the Dawson family. As he walked out of the tunnel at Twickenham, he caught sight of his mum and dad who were beaming with pride. This was his first brush with international sport and walking out with his best friend Paul Grayson was an unbelievable moment. Unfortunately Matt doesn’t recall much of the game but remembers the feeling of elation when heading back to the dressing rooms. Unbeknown to all, this was the start of a long association between Matt Dawson and international rugby which elevated him to the very top of professional sport.
The 1997 Lions tour of South Africa was Matt’s very first with the squad where he made history, becoming the first player to beat four of the opposition team with one dummy. This was when he really broke through and made his name as one of the most exciting talents of the sport. Being with the Lions was a totally different experience to playing for your country and in those days players would have much looser guidelines for what they could or couldn’t do. In his early twenties and in another country with so much freedom, Matt was in his element and such enthusiasm was to transfer on to the pitch and together with the squad, sparked the beginning of a golden era of British rugby.
Following losing the 2001 Lions tour to fierce rivals Australia, Britain was hungry for victory. Going into the 2003 World Cup in Australia, Matt sensed something different about the team. They seemed to gel as a unit which is frequently difficult when coming to a tournament from the domestic league. It was the semifinals with France when it really hit home to Matt just the scale of what they were attempting to achieve when Johnny Wilkinson’s boot proved to be the difference between victory and defeat. Luckily for England it turned out to be the former as on the 22nd November 2003, captain Martin Johnson led the team out on what was England’s first international team sport final since 1966.
This newfound fame was a substantial shock to Matt and indeed the rest of the squad. When they returned home, the whole team were heralded as heroes and lived like David Beckham for a few weeks as suddenly rugby became hot property. Luckily Matt has always been extremely grounded in his approach to fame and was able to compartmentalise it. Coping with that level of fame at a moderately tender age isn’t always easy but Matt always knew that the concentrated adulation on the sport wouldn’t last forever. Still enjoying his rugby at club level, he recognised the importance in being able to stay grounded. With one eye on the future, the World Cup winner began assessing his options for a career after rugby. He was still playing for Northampton but just a few months later moved to London Wasps where he saw out his professional rugby career.
Following retirement in 2006, Matt was honoured when the BBC approached him with the proposition to become a team captain on the heavyweight A Question of Sport. Following his debut on the series in 1999, Dawson had become a favourite booking on the show and was the perfect candidate to replace the outgoing Frankie Detori. After watching it for almost the entirety of his life, it was a great honour for him to join the long running panel show alongside Sue Barker and Ally McCoist. Regularly attracting big audiences as part of BBC One’s Friday night lineup, the trio of Sue Ally and Matt proved popular with the public as the show evolved into a smorgasbord of sporting banter between the captains. This aspect was further developed by the recruitment of Phil Tufnell in 2008 as the series grew into an activity based panel show which saw the captains in a banterous rivalry which raised the stakes and added a new dimension to proceedings. Over fourteen years later, Matt can’t wait to return to the studio for a new series which is due to air later in the year.
Beyond panel shows, Matt has also carved out a successful career as a pundit for BBC Radio 5Live. This is a role he takes extremely seriously and is conscious to be forever constructive about his analysis of current players. He feels that it would be wrong to say something about a player on air that he wouldn’t say to their face and this is a constant mantra that he uses when providing commentary to any game. This might go some way to explaining why Matt Dawson has become one of Britain’s most trusted authorities on the sport and long may he reign over the microphone. From World Cup winning scrum half to one of the leading players in sporting Light Entertainment, the former PE and geography teacher has come a long way from his days as a Chelsea schoolboy. It was a great honour to meet and interview the great Matt Dawson and wish him well for the rest of his career.