It’s a whole new ball game as Matt moves on to a TV career

As England’s most capped scrum half, Matt Dawson knew only too well the occasionally fractious relationship between a national side and the press.

Winning 77 caps for England, Dawson was part of the team which did the double in 2003 –ending the year with a Six Nations grand slam and the World Cup, but the back pages didn’t always make for easy reading.

Famously never short of an opinion or two, he spoke out against punishing schedules and a lack of management support during a Lions tour to Australia and, despite his trademark runs and undoubted try-scoring ability, he wasn’t always guaranteed a good write-up.

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Yet since hanging up his boots five years ago, Dawson has gone from poacher to gamekeeper, making a seamless transition from player to pundit. He’s established himself as one Radio 5 Live’s main summarisers, host of major tournament specials and a firm favourite with listeners.

It was the 38-year-old’s opinion which was sought when Martin Johnson’s embryonic England side was taking its first faltering steps, it was he who was brought in to interview Matt Stevens after the Bath prop tested positive for cocaine, and when the Bloodgate scandal threatened to bring the sport into disrepute, Dawson was once again in the chair.

“Going into broadcasting was something I though about quite carefully,” says Dawson. “I was going to be talking about some of the guys I’d shared a dressing room with, but I think you can be critical if you do it in a constructive way and as long as the players don’t feel it’s unfair or some kind of personal attack.

“As a player, I always used to read the next day’s match reports and those that say they don’t I suspect are being economical with the truth. It’s not nice reading criticism of yourself, but you know if you’ve had a good game or not.

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“No-one goes out to play badly, but if you explain to them why a mistake occurred in a way they understand, then I do think it’s helpful. I hope I never come across as someone who says, ‘I’ve been there done that, listen to me’, but I know what it’s like playing at the highest level and it’s that insight I want to give to listeners.”

It was Dawson’s pass to Jonny Wilkinson which secured England’s 2003 World Cup victory in the last minute of extra time and many expected him to retire after the MBEs had been handed out. In fact, it was another three years before he gave up the Number 9 shirt, by which time he had moved from Northampton Saints to London Wasps and was already carving out a media career.

“I was always going to be around 06/07, it was a date set in mind for a while,” he says. “I’d already started doing Question of Sport and Wasps were really good about giving me the time to develop a career outside the sport. I knew I wouldn’t miss being smashed up every Tuesday afternoon in training, but of course everyone misses the changing room. However, in sport you have a window of opportunity, some windows are larger than others, but when it’s gone you have to move on and find something to replace it with. I was always very philosophical about it.”

Several of his former England team-mates, including Neil Back and Mike Catt, followed the captain, Martin Johnson into coaching, but Dawson never had a burning ambition to relive those wet Wednesday afternoons on the training fields.

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“If someone asked me to coach, I’d think about it, but no-one ever has,” he says, admitting ambivalence towards a full-time club role. “I do work with scrum halves and I like to think I’ve something to give, but a full-time coach is incredibly demanding, it’s much more pressure than being a player.

“There’s something nice about being on the sidelines and having the chance to be a fan. I like wandering around the car parks on match days talking to supporters about chances for the game and then I get to sit in a box on the half way line – there’s not a better seat in the house.”

He may not have lifted a rugby ball professionally for the best part of five years, but Dawson has kept himself fit. A keen cyclist and golfer, his next challenge will be the Jane Tomlinson Leeds 10k run in June. He’ll be running on behalf of Sparks, the charity which funds research into medical conditions affecting babies and children and a cause he has been involved with for the last 20 years.

“I get asked to be involved in all sorts of charities and it would be lovely to be able to say yes to everything, but you can’t,” he says. “There’s something quite humbling about working with Sparks, it’s just full of people who give so much time and effort trying to make the world a bit of a better place.

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“An event like the Jane T race is my way of doing my bit and I have no great aspirations to set any records. People have the impression that I’m still ultra-competitive, but that stopped the day I played my last match. I’ll step up the mileage before the race, but my only real aim is to get round without walking. I’m definitely not a gym monkey.”

Dawson may protest his lack of competitive spirit a little too much. Shortly after retiring, he made sure his profile remained high by coming second in Strictly Come Dancing, after starting off as an unlikely contender, and beating Roger Black to the title Celebrity Masterchef.

“I made a pact with myself only to accept a reality show if I was going to get something out of it other than a cheque,” says Dawson, who keeps his 40,000 followers regularly updated with his latest ventures on Twitter.

“Apart from learning a musical instrument, being able to dance was always an ambition, so when Strictly came along I thought, ‘Why not?’ Aside from having to wear Cuban heels, I thought I can probably get throughout it without embarrassing myself.

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“The truth is I feel more comfortable when I’m working, whether that’s doing the radio show or cooking on Masterchef and when I look back on my life since retirement it’s been all good. Strictly gave me a taste of that celebrity world and it was an exceptional few months, magical even.”

It’s the same description he uses of A Question of Sport, a show he grew up watching when Emlyn Hughes and Bill Beaumont were team captains.

“It’s my seventh year now and it just gets better,” says Dawson, who last year added ambassador for the global catering group Sodexo to his CV. “It’s a winning formula, which has stood the test the time and you don’t get a lot of those in TV.”

So there you have it. Matt Dawson: ruby star, commentator, quiz captain, chef, ballroom dancer, and, as he neatly side-steps the question of how female officials would have fared on the rugby pitch, it turns out he’s something of a diplomat too.