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RUGBYPASS+ John Dobson: 'With all due respect, we're desperate not to become rugby's answer to Leicester City'

John Dobson: 'With all due respect, we're desperate not to become rugby's answer to Leicester City'
1 month ago

John Dobson’s Whatsapp profile picture – a black and white portrait of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas – reflects his attitude to life and rugby. The lines of ‘Do not go gentle into that good night” have always resonated with the writer-turned-coach, and have taken on a deeper meaning over the past 12 months as the Stormers have defied the threat of relegation to win the inaugural United Rugby Championship title.

Comeback stories are often embellished and dramatised. Further details of this particular triumph over adversity, however, will emerge in the coming months. The conclusion of this epic has yet to be written, as the fight for the soul of rugby in the Western Cape continues.

“Would I write a book about the Stormers’ journey?” Dobson asks rhetorically. “Not right now. It would be career-ending. That said, it’s a story I would like to tell in more detail one day.”

Nevertheless, Dobson provides RugbyPass+ with a harrowing account of the Stormers’ roller-coaster journey.

The botched sale of Newlands Rugby Stadium and a series of gaffes that plunged an embattled franchise deeper and deeper into debt. The failed private equity deal that contributed to a raft of senior Springboks – including captain Siya Kolisi – leaving the franchise. The dire financial situation that led to smaller touring squads and – on one particular trip – four consecutive meals at McDonald’s.

These stories prompt a couple of questions about leadership. How could the board of a professional franchise allow things to deteriorate to this point? And how could those tasked with coaching and managing the team convince the bulk of the players to stay the course?

Nine months later, the Stormers outclassed the Bulls to claim the URC title. They carried that form through to the 2022/23 season, and extended their unbeaten run to 15 matches, before losing 30-26 to Cardiff in Wales.

How did they do it? How did Dobson extract the best from a group styling itself as misfits, strays and rejects, or more specifically, ‘the Absurd Heroes?’

“I’ve always loved Dylan Thomas’s poetry, and have had that profile pic since I opened a WhatsApp account many years ago,” Dobson explained.

“We adopted that particular poem – ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ – as one of our mantras last season. We could have faded at any stage of the journey, especially at the end, but we stuck to the task.”

Chris van Zyl represented the Stormers and WP between 2015 and 2020, and had the opportunity to lead both teams while Dobson was at the helm. Throughout his tenure, the former lock was exposed to the unique team environment, as well as elements within the administration that threatened to tear the side apart.

On the day of the 2021/22 URC final, Van Zyl met with Dobson on the Cape Town Stadium pitch. In that moment, the memories of the past six or seven seasons came flooding back.

“I was battling to contain my emotions,” Van Zyl said. “My first thought was that nobody deserves this more than Dobbo, given all he had been through and all he had done to get the team there.

John Dobson
Dobson has been forever grateful to the Stormers fans for sticking with the side through thick and thin (Photo By Harry Murphy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

“It was absolute chaos at the union for a long time. Instead of complaining, Dobbo embraced all the extra work behind the scenes.

“He protected the team. He paid for things out of his own pocket, and often made last-minute arrangements through sponsors to make sure things got done. Through it all, he never lost his passion for the game.

“I don’t think there’s a coach in world rugby who has gone through as much and has done as much for a team.”

Dobson grew up at Newlands Rugby Stadium. His father Paul was an accomplished referee, and subsequently one of South Africa’s most revered rugby journalists and historians. Through Paul, Dobson developed a deep love for rugby and words.

After representing various teams in South Africa and Europe, the self-professed writer turned his attention to a career in magazine and digital publishing. Dobson never relinquished his penchant for club rugby, though, and when the opportunity to coach the University of Cape Town was offered, he grabbed it with both hands.

Dobbo made everyone feel like they were part of more than just a rugby team. That sense of belonging grew stronger as the years progressed. Dobbo’s emotional intelligence is very high

Chris Van Zyl, former Stormers lock

Nobody gave the Ikeys a chance in the inaugural Varsity Cup. But with Dobson at the helm, they defied the odds to finish first in the standings and to progress to the final, where they lost 16-10 to Stellenbosch.

Influential rugby people started to sit up at take notice of Dobson and his methods. Rassie Erasmus joined the Stormers as the director of rugby on 2008, and implemented changes that resulted in the franchise qualifying for the Super 14 final two years later. In 2010, Erasmus brought Dobson into the system to work with the Western Province U21 side.

When Allister Coetzee left the Stormers in 2015 for a stint in Japan, Robbie Fleck was promoted as head coach of the Super Rugby side. Dobson was tasked with managing WP in the Currie Cup.

Van Zyl – who was playing club rugby up in Johannesburg at that stage – was one of the first players Dobson recruited for a new-look WP.

“What struck me about that environment was that Dobbo had managed to combine professionalism with amateurism, in the sense that the team had access to everything and was as technical and professional as it needed to be, yet boasted the inclusivity and family vibe that you’d normally associate with club rugby,” Van Zyl said.

“Dobbo made everyone feel like they were part of more than just a rugby team. That sense of belonging grew stronger as the years progressed. Dobbo’s emotional intelligence is very high. The manner in which he engages with everyone, and the way he drives inclusivity sets him apart.

Manie Libbok
Manie Libbock celebrates the Stormers’ first URC title (Photo by RODGER BOSCH/Getty Images)

“He cares about individuals, not just as players, but as human beings. When you begin to understand that as a player, you feel a sense of accountability. You don’t want to let him down.”

Van Zyl chuckles when he’s asked to expand on Dobson’s methods of motivation. When prompted for comment after the recent URC final, Stormers captain Steven Kitshoff had a similar reaction, before giving the coach his due.

The man himself points out that the situation at the Stormers changed 12 months ago – and that he’s had more freedom to wax lyrical in recent times.

After SA Rugby placed WP in administration in October 2021 – and assumed administrative control – Dobson and Co. were allowed to focus on the rugby rather than the politics.

“To say that it has been a turbulent few years would be an understatement,” Dobson said. “I reported to eight different bosses during my time.

“Yes, it was a shock when we went into administration, because we weren’t quite sure about what it would mean. Once we got past the bumpy start and obtained some clarity, we were allowed to focus on what was happening on the field.

Scott Robertson at the Crusaders likes to break up a season into different campaigns and themes. We decided to call ourselves the ‘Absurd Heroes’ midway through last season. French philosopher Albert Camus spoke about figures like Sisyphus who embraced the futility of their task

John Dobson

“We leaned into it. We were the poor kids at the orphanage that nobody wanted. We were absurd team touring without enough players and living off McDonald’s meals.”

Dobson identifies the loss to Connacht in Galway as one of the lowest points of the campaign. After that, the Stormers won every game, including the decider against the Bulls – who had beaten a full-strength Leinster in the semi-final staged in Dublin.

“If you look at how things panned out in the last five or six games of last season, we were almost in a do-or-die situation every week.

“We had to win to qualify for the URC quarter-finals, then to to qualify for the Champions Cup, then to advance to the final… the players started making fun of me because I’d begin each meeting with, ‘This is the most important week of the campaign’.”

Dobson is a storyteller, and is forever looking for past deeds and metaphors that may resonate with his charges. He is willing to experiment and fail in this respect, and is quick to point out that some campaigns and themes don’t land with the coaches and players.

But when they do… well, recent results speak for themselves.

“Scott Robertson at the Crusaders likes to break up a season into different campaigns and themes – so it’s not uncommon. We decided to call ourselves the ‘Absurd Heroes’ midway through last season. French philosopher Albert Camus spoke about figures like Sisyphus who embraced the futility of their task.”

Leo Cullen John Dobson
A deep thinker about the game, Dobson is always happy to share ideas with fellow coaches, like Leinster’s Leo Cullen (Photo By Harry Murphy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

According to Greek mythology, the gods punished Sisyphus by forcing him to roll a boulder up a hill for eternity. After he reached the top, the boulder would roll back down to the foot of the hill, and he was forced to repeat the ordeal the following day.

“It was much the same for us,” said Dobson. “We were forever pushing an elephant up the stairs. Once we’d completed one task, we were faced with another, and then another.

“That idea landed massively with the players. Initially, I thought that it might be too edgy and esoteric. But the players were doing the hard work week after week, and they were getting challenge after challenge thrown at them in return.”

Ahead of the final against the Bulls, Dobson looked to a wartime prime minister of the United Kingdom for inspiration, as well as a decorated South African pilot.

“We knew about the Bulls’ strength in the forwards. We knew that Marcell Coetzee was one of the top offloaders in the competition, and that he played a lot off No 9. So we knew that he’d attack that inside channel.

It’s funny what sticks in the players’ minds, and the words that can represent an entire idea or movement. Malan’s call sign was ‘Cut Some Cake’. I remember Steven Kitshoff standing up to lead the team talk before the final, and finishing with a rallying cry of: ‘Let’s go and cut some cake!

John Dobson

“As a result, we looked to Winston Churchill. Throughout the buildup to the final, we spoke about ‘Fighting them in the trenches’.

“There was another story about Sailor Malan, a South African spitfire pilot who served in the RAF during World War 2. At the time, he was one of the RAF’s leading pilots.

“After the war, he led the Torch Commando group, who fought against apartheid. A lot of that resonated with us, a multicultural side representing a multicultural community in the Western Cape.

“It’s funny what sticks in the players’ minds, though, and the words that can represent an entire idea or movement. Malan’s call sign was ‘Cut Some Cake’. I remember Steven Kitshoff standing up to lead the team talk before the final, and finishing with a rallying cry of: ‘Let’s go and cut some cake!’”

The Stormers forwards feasted on their Bulls counterparts, while the backs rose to the aerial challenge. The result – a 18-13 victory for the Stormers – surprised a lot of people.

Dobson won’t be drawn into a debate about which team was technically and tactically superior on the day. He does, however, believe that the journey to the final forced the group to develop a powerful sense of identity.

“We are who we are. We are the tournament’s rejects, and we have embraced the fact.

Deon Fourie
The Stormers have their superstar Boks but their success is built on hard graft from players like Deon Fourie (Photo By Harry Murphy/ Getty Images)

“We have our Boks, but if you go through our team from last season, there are a lot of players that nobody else wanted. Guys like Hacjivah Dayimani, who wasn’t wanted by the Lions. Older guys like Deon Fourie and Brok Harris… they ended up being the difference for us.

“That mantra translated to how we played. I remember the game against Scarlets in Llanelli, which we desperately needed to win. There was a moment where we had a chance to take control by slowing things down and playing the percentages. Instead, Warrick Gelant took a quick throw and we ended up losing possession.

“Three months earlier, I would have been so angry with that mistake. As it was, I just turned to my assistant coaches and laughed.

“By that point, we had come to accept the ‘We are who we are’ philosophy. That was the price you paid for backing those types of players, because the risks they took paid off more often than not. We went on to win that game.

One of Dobbo’s biggest strengths is that he’s not threatened by those he works with. He’s comfortable and mature enough to delegate responsibility, and to back his assistants to take complete control in some departments.

Chris Van Zyl

“You think about the great Stormers teams of the past – Bob Skinstad’s side in 1999 and Schalk Burger’s team that progressed to the 2010 Super 14 final – and you might say that based on personnel, this current side does not warrant comparison. Ahead of last season, we lost senior Boks of the quality of Siya Kolisi, Damian de Allende, Bongi Mbonambi and Pieter-Steph du Toit. But we refused to go down. That’s a big statement.”

Dobson is quick to credit his assistant coaches for the part they have played in this revival. Van Zyl argues that the head coach has created an environment in which the assistants, and by extension the players, can grow.

“One of Dobbo’s biggest strengths is that he’s not threatened by those he works with,” said Van Zyl. “He’s comfortable and mature enough to delegate responsibility, and to back his assistants to take complete control in some departments.

“We’re talking about a guy who’s an absolute leader in some facets of the game, particularly at the breakdown. He’s been massive on the off-the-ball aspect of the contest, and that ties in with the ‘unsung heroes’ theme.

“A wing scores in the corner, but who made that happen? Who hit the rucks in the buildup, who made the cleanouts to generate quick ball?

Chris Van Zyl
Former Stormers lock Chris Van Zyl spent five years under Dobson and saw his methods at close quarters (Photo by Dianne Manson/Getty Images)

“In a way, that’s a metaphor for Dobbo himself, working behind the scenes and not always getting the credit.”

Stormers attack and backline coach Dawie Snyman has been working alongside Dobson since 2010. He didn’t hesitate to put the matter into perspective.

“The truth is that 90% of what he does is behind the scenes,” Snyman said. “Most people – from the public to the media to the players – won’t even know about the other stuff.

“For most of the time, he was managing upwards and protecting the players and coaches. As soon as SA Rugby took over last year, there was a lot less noise to deal with, and we could all focus on the rugby.

“There were many times when I wondered if the journey would end and we would have to face the question of what came next. Fortunately it never came to that.”

On the surface, the franchise appears to be in rude health. The Stormers have long boasted several senior Springboks in their squad, as well as a clutch of gifted youngsters destined for higher honours. The school and junior pathways in the Western Cape churn out a remarkable number of talented individuals, to the benefit of the Stormers and other South African franchises.

The next step is the private equity deal. That’s a big hoop that we need to get through.

John Dobson

And yet, the Stormers have just one intercontinental title to show for their efforts in the professional era.

The turbulent situation at board level – and the power wielded by some of the self-serving clubs – has had a negative impact on the team’s performance over the years. It’s the reason why so many Boks have opted to leave the union, and why Erasmus – the current South African director of rugby – resigned from his post as Stormers senior professional coach in 2012.

Ten years later, and some things have changed in that the Stormers have finally won a title of substance. But when you speak to Dobson, the assistant coaches, and others who have been at the coalface in recent times, it’s clear that the franchise is not out of the woods yet.

Indeed, it comes as no surprise to hear that Dobson still covets Thomas’s message, and that he will continue to “Rage against the dying of the light” for as long as he can. The hard work is far from done.

“The next step is the private equity deal,” Dobson confirmed. “That’s a big hoop that we need to get through. I’m not sure what kind of changes the private owners would like to see, in terms of a playing roster and so on.

Damian Willemse
The Stormers are producing the next batch of Springboks, including Damian Willemse (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

“We’ve got the next generation right here. Damian Willemse is only 24, and then there are younger guys like Suleiman Hartzenberg, Sacha Mngomezulu, Imad Khan, Kade Wolhuter, Andre-Hugo Venter and so on.

“I’ve decided to invest in those players by giving them a chance in the early stages of this URC. We will have to manage our squad carefully across a long season, but it’s also important to give these guys game time with the future in mind.”

Van Zyl – who retired from rugby in 2020 to pursue a career in finance – believes that the sky is the limit for this team.

“The franchise and province have a proud history, the facilities are great and there’s never been a shortage of talent.

“The problems at administration level have long held the team back. From the moment I was brought in and exposed to that, as one of the leaders, I got an idea of what coaches like Robbie Fleck and Dobbo went through. They weren’t allowed to focus purely on the rugby. With some stability, this could be a world-class team.”

We want to replicate what we saw in the 1980s, when Western Province dominated the Currie Cup and established a dynasty. Maybe that means winning a couple of URC trophies over the next few years. With all due respect, we’re desperate not to become rugby’s answer to Leicester City

John Dobson

As a parting shot, Dobson recalls the jubilant scenes at the Cape Town Stadium on the day of the URC final. While this team has achieved more than any other Stormers side in history, they continue to view the recent success in the URC as the first step of a much longer journey.

“We want to replicate what we saw in the 1980s, when Western Province dominated the Currie Cup and established a dynasty. Maybe that means winning a couple of URC trophies over the next few years. With all due respect, we’re desperate not to become rugby’s answer to Leicester City.

“If I’m pushed to paint an ideal picture of where I see this team in five years’ time, it will look exactly the same as it does today.

“There are obviously things that we still have to get through. We have to put the administration behind us, and we have to finalise a private equity deal.

“Other than that, in terms of players and coaches, I have everyone and everything that I need right here.”

************

TURMOIL BEHIND THE SCENES:

NOV 2019: With Western Province R40m in the red, the board enters into a deal with Investec to redevelop Newlands Rugby Stadium. Investec advances R50m to repay lenders and former partners Remgro

MAY 2020: After reneging on the Investec deal, WP president Zelt Marais rushes into a new partnership with Flyt Property Investment, and the union takes on additional debt. The union bonds the 11 properties it owns to Flyt as guarantees

SEP 2020: Excitement around a potentially franchise-saving private equity deal with MVM – the American consortium headed up by SA-born businessman Marco Masotti and Roc Nation representatives – quickly evaporates after it emerges that the WP board intends to reject the offer

OCT 2020: After six directors – including two sponsor reps – leave the union and criticise the leadership, Marais admits that the new partnership with Flyt is “on the rocks”

NOV 2020: Stormers players confront Marais and senior management about the financial instability of the union. Senior Boks weigh up their future

DEC 2020: Marias demands $10,000 from Masotti for a tour of Newlands Rugby Stadium – a further sign that the deal with MVM is doomed. The professional arm of WP takes steps to distance itself from the president.

FEB 2021: Springbok and Stormers captain Siya Kolisi – who is represented by Roc Nation – ends his 11-year tenure in Cape Town and joins the Sharks, who have by now partnered with MVM. Bok hooker Bongi Mbonambi follows Kolisi to Durban soon after.

MAY 2021: Dream World Investments, owners of Flyt, accuse WP of reneging on the deal and sue for R388m. Fifteen clubs in the Western Cape approach SA Rugby and demand that they place the WP union in administration

AUG 2021: Expectations are tempered as the inaugural URC looms, with the Stormers touted as favourites for the SA Shield wooden spoon. Pieter Steph du Toit – the 2019 World Rugby Player of the Year – confirms a move to Toyota Verblitz

SEP 2021: The Stormers begin their URC campaign with a 22-18 loss to Benetton in Treviso. The Cheetahs are placed on standby to replace the Stormers in the URC

OCT 2021: SA Rugby places WP in administration

DEC 2021: After moving from Newlands to Green Point, the Stormers begin a new era at the Cape Town Stadium with a 37-19 loss to the Lions

JAN 2022: The Stormers score a shock 30-26 victory against the Bulls, and become the first visiting team to win at Loftus Versfeld since 2020

MAR 2022: After losing narrowly to Connacht in Galway, the Stormers thrash Zebre 55-7 in Stellenbosch. This result marks the start of a 15-game unbeaten run

MAY 2022: The Stormers book their place in the URC quarter-finals – and in the 2022/23 Champions Cup – after beating Scarlets 26-21 in Llanelli

JUNE 2022: Manie Libbok nails a late drop goal to beat the Bulls 18-13 in the URC final. The Stormers claim their first-ever intercontinental title

OCT 2022: An unbeaten run of 15 games comes to an end after the Stormers lose 30-26 in Cardiff

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