SMUC: 'There’s something about this place'
“Rugby league was born out of a desire to do something different.”
This is how David Lawrenson, a former student of St. Mary’s and now media and marketing executive at the Rugby Football League, refers to the sport when we discussed rugby league and all things St. Mary’s last week.
But it also could describe the man himself. And his choice of education. Lawrenson admits that St. Mary’s in 1970 had an attitude that impressed him. Apart from its Catholic principles and family links (his sister also attended SMUC before him), it was the outside of the mainstream approach as he put it, that produced so many good memories. He spoke of big rivals Loughborough being nicely presented in shirts and ties – in football and rugby union – but St. Mary’s were in his own words “scruffy and had long hair”. But he pointed to a good vibe around the place, and the campus being just the right size to produce a laid-back culture that has helped him still remain in touch with friends from his university days today.
Having been to London only once before – the rugby league Challenge Cup final in 1966, which consisted of getting off the train to see his side win then getting back on the train – St. Mary’s was different. With Freda Payne’s ‘Band of Gold’ at number one in the charts (music has always been significant in his life) Lawrenson moved south and was instantly surprised but impressed: “It was a real eye opener. I’d come from a grey Northern industrial town. But this place was fantastic and it’s such a nice area.It was a real eye opener. I’d come from a grey Northern industrial town. But this place was fantastic and it’s such a nice area.”
“It’s changed a lot, physically. But it’s got the same vibe. There’s something about this place. The size has a lot to do with it.” Whilst reminiscing about his time in Twickenham, Lawrenson remembers the social scene, the bar area decorated in weird and wonderful ways by final year art students doing their projects. He talks about sitting on the floor of the theatre at SMUC, watching Pink Floyd in 1971 with 600 others, having only paid £1 for a ticket. And adding to the rock and roll vibe of the university, Lawrenson was taught by Mick Jagger’s father, Joe, a PE lecturer at SMUC. (Joe Jagger’s funeral was later held in the college chapel).
But perhaps most strangely, Lawrenson sat in seminars with the athlete David Bedford. Bedford’s name may not mean much to younger people, even though he was the 10,000m world record holder, but many will know his ‘look’ – Bedford’s image is used in 118 adverts, complete with headband, long hair and vest.
Bedford clearly had an affect on Lawrenson, as he recounts what an old teacher said to him after his A-level results. “He said two things, 'I’d advise going to the Youth Employment Bureau and I’d advise getting a haircut'.”
Lawrenson did one of those and left the delights of Waldegrave Road in Strawberry Hill, going on to achieve a lot; working for such publications as the Times, the Observer, freelancing for rugby magazines such as Rugby World and Running Rugby, editing publications, working for the BBC and writing six books on rugby and having a cup of tea with pop starlet Kate Bush. All of this on top of a career in journalism that started by writing for music magazines, local newspapers and came after a switch from teaching.
Now working covering the game of rugby league as a journalist but also promoting the game, particularly in the south, his knowledge and experience of the game is key. “The good thing is most of my time, I’ve been based down here. So I’ve got a perspective from down here.” On the London Broncos, someone who Lawrenson works closely with and has seen play at six different venues, he is clear in what needs to be done. “You can’t just keep moving around like that. It becomes an excuse. You’ve got to put down roots. And build.”
“I think they’ve missed opportunities. Rugby league is strong when its part of the community. You go to Castleford, Hull, Bradford - its part of the fabric. If you keep moving around then you don’t establish yourself in a particular area. You’ve got to work at success to give something kids can aspire to.”
With the Australianisation of rugby league in the last few years, the former SMUC student speaks of the importance of the role of London and the South East: “There’s some great athletes in London, its just getting hold of them early enough. Aussies play from aged 4, 5 and 6. Now we’re starting to see kids 8, 9 and 10.”
And his role now in the Rugby League World Cup 2013 is crucial in this. Involved with the media department of the RFL, Lawrenson’s job is to have a hand in publicizing the event, liaising with those in the south. “The double header, the semi finals at Wembley, are big. It could be one of the defining days of the World Cup. If you can get all the publicity with that. Legacy. All the national media are based down here too.”
I asked does he cringe at the word legacy, after the Olympics? And is there a pressure that comes with staging the tournament? “With the Olympics, there’s all the upheaval, what they’re doing with Greenwich Park and the legacy for local people. Which is a sensitive topic, and a one off. We’re at Wembley but elsewhere too. Its not a one off for us, it’s an opportunity and we’ve got to maximise that.”
It’s a big responsibility but Lawrenson has come a long way since the days at the Youth Employment Bureau. He even has a short back and sides these days.