John Dobson: Stormers head coach on his incredible journey and success as URC title showdown with Munster awaits

John Dobson Stormers coach feature pic 2023.jpg Credit: Alamy
John Dobson Stormers coach feature pic 2023.jpg Credit: Alamy

On the eve of the Stormers’ second successive final in the United Rugby Championship (URC), Planet Rugby writer David Skippers spoke to the Cape Town-based outfit’s head coach John Dobson about the team’s success under his guidance.

While the likes of Manie Libbok, Deon Fourie, Steven Kitshoff, Damian Willemse, Evan Roos and Hacjivah Dayimani have been receiving most of the plaudits for the Stormers’ remarkable form at URC level in recent years, Dobson has been the mastermind behind the team’s meteoric rise.

A published author, who holds degrees in Law, Business administration and Creative Writing, Dobson started his reign as Stormers head coach during the 2020 Super Rugby campaign.

Plenty of coaching experience

Prior to that, he has been part of the Western Province and Stormers coaching set-up for more than a decade and had successful stints at U21 and senior provincial levels where his teams won silverware on a regular basis, including a Currie Cup title in 2017.

When speaking to Dobson his humility comes through strongly and he is quick to point out that he is part of a collective, along with his assistants – Dawie Snyman (backline and attack coach), Rito Hlungwani (forwards coach), Norman Laker (defence coach), Labeeb Levy (skills coach and technical analyst) and Gareth Wright (kicking coach) – in bringing the glory days to the Stormers.

“I just feel like the head coach often gets too much – sometimes too much flack – but certainly gets too much credit,” he said. “The reason (for the success) is probably us as a coaching team; there’s amazing levels of trust, and we genuinely are friends and we would go for a meal together, even if it wasn’t to do with rugby so we’re lucky.

“So myself, Labeeb and Dawie have probably been together since 2010. That’s 13 years and Norman probably came in 2015, so that’s eight years. And then Rito was in our U19s (as a coach) and the (Western Province Rugby) Institute for a couple of years and we got him in in 2019. So he’s the new boy and he’s here four years you know, Gareth Wright’s probably been here 10 years as well. So we have really high levels of trust.

“Nobody wants my job, I am not breathing down on them. I think a massive factor in our success is we’re a coaching team. I’m just lucky I get the media attention and I mean that.”

Since the establishment of the Stormers in 1997, they were renowned as a team who produced some of the most talented players in South Africa, but they also had a reputation for being underachievers as they failed to win any inter-continental trophies during their time in Super Rugby.

Dobson changed all that when he took charge of the team and he believes the fact that he is a son of the Cape Town soil has contributed to the Stormers’ recent success, which culminated in last year’s triumph over the Bulls in the inaugural URC final.

“I think it’s helped that I’m from here because when you’ve been part of a region, you can understand the culture and the DNA,” said the 54-year-old. “I think maybe that’s why the Sharks haven’t quite got there for the last while. Blue Bulls rugby looks like a certain style and a certain way of playing so that’s why Jake (White) got success when he came in because he got them sort of playing to their strengths.

“So I think that; a) from a rugby sort of style or understanding point of view, but secondly, it’s to understand the people and why we are playing you know, what our team has got is an amazing ‘why’. We’re playing to make Cape Town smile, and we just know what rugby we are playing, I think I’ve helped.

“Maybe if I was like, Eddie Jones, or someone came in here, I am not saying Eddie Jones, but like a foreign coach who doesn’t understand the Cape, you wouldn’t get it and once we understand that the team connects to the people, that gives us a tremendous power and purpose and I think I’ve contributed towards that and I am not being arrogant.

“There is advantage and having guys, you know, like, in a funny way Dick Muir when he was at the Sharks. He’s a banana boy, he understood the culture. Similarly, Ian Mac (McIntosh). If you understand what the people want to see and connect to it, I think that’s a big advantage for me. It’s understanding this region.”

One of the standout features of the Stormers’ game is their style of play, with their expansive game-plan winning them plenty of admirers amongst the Cape Town rugby public and neutral supporters.

Change in approach to the game

That wasn’t always the case and Dobson points out that his team’s current approach was determined after they suffered a humiliating defeat against the Lions in Cape Town at the end of 2021.

“I think in the early part after the 2019 World Cup, the rugby world was in trouble. And maybe the Springboks contributed to that but we weren’t the only ones by any stretch, you know, with all that box kicking,” he said.

“Later, in 2020, when rugby was played in empty stadia (due to Covid-19), it was awful. It was just a box kick (spectacle), everyone was scared of losing. I don’t know, maybe it was a sort of reflection of the society we were living in at that time, we were locked down and grim.

“But I remember there was a nation’s cup played in the northern hemisphere roundabout that time. And it was awful rugby. (Between) 110 to 120 kicks per game. And I got drawn into that and we did it at the Stormers. it was a terrific mistake.

“You know, because it wasn’t our DNA. It wasn’t what people wanted to see. But then you didn’t have fans in the stadium. So you sort of just didn’t want to lose. But I don’t know if you remember in December 2021, we got a hiding from the Lions. We dominated the game in every respect. And then we had a horrible Christmas. And six weeks of being the skunks that lost 37-19 to the Lions.

“And we worked right the way through Christmas to say that the way we played is clearly not effective. And how can we change and how can we best suit our personnel and that probably was the big catalyst for us to change and then we sort of stumbled on a game model after that which I don’t think we’re going to change for a long time.

“You know, I don’t see us changing. And I know exactly how the team works. The only position I don’t know what it looks like in the Stormers is (number) seven because you’d agree with me that BJ Dixon is very different to Hacjivah Dayimani or Ernst van Rhyn but every other position you know (like) a number eight is a big ball returner whether it’s with his feet, like Hacjivah, or with power, like Evan, or a combo like Marcel Theunissen.

“Our number six is a fetcher, our 10 must be able to take the ball to the line, our centres are really good yeoman workers. I mean, they chase kicks, they work, they hit the vacuum they defend, it’s absolutely clear to us. So that was the big change.”

Dobson credits his high school coach Basil Bey and former Western Province mentors Alan Zondagh and Dawie Snyman Senior as his biggest influences on his career and the Stormers’ current game-plan is similar to the way the aforementioned gentlemen coached the game.

As far as the current crop of Stormers are concerned, Dobson feels the players know exactly what is expected of them and that has contributed to the team’s success.

“I think possibly what we have is absolute clarity on why we play and how to play,” he explained. “So when I say ‘why’, that purpose, you know, this mission thing is I’ve been quoted a bit in the last while, ‘make Cape Town smile’. If you go to other successful sports teams like Barcelona, they’ve got this saying: ‘mas que un club’ which means more than a club. They’re playing for the people of Catalonia standing up against what General Franco did.

“If you go look at Liverpool, you know they’re playing for a poor city with an ultimate anthem ‘you’ll never walk alone’. I mean, I don’t support Liverpool or am interested in soccer but if you’ve got a why, I mean, it’s if you got all these books now. So that is massive.

“I don’t think we’ve always connected like that with people and understood.”

Wary of Munster

On the upcoming clash against Munster in the final at Cape Town Stadium on May 27, Dobson is wary of his opponents – who ended the Stormers’ 16-month winning run at home and won both previous matches between these sides – but has plenty of respect for the Irish province and their head coach, Graham Rowntree.

“I think Graham Rowntree is obviously a very bright coach. He’s done an exceptional job with Munster. He is a really nice guy, a true rugby guy. You know what they’ve done lately is remarkable,” he said.

“They come here and ended our unbeaten record, you know. They go to the Sharks, a fully loaded Sharks and draw. They go to Scotstoun in Glasgow, who haven’t lost there in the whole season, they win in Glasgow and they then go and win in Leinster. That’s phenomenal.

“And then when we went to them (Munster) on tour last year, we felt that that was the most similar in the URC to Cape Town rugby culture with the people who had flags hanging out their windows and the jerseys.

“Limerick just felt like a rugby city and Thomond Park is a cathedral and they beat us fair and square here, yes. They’ve got some big players returning like RG Snyman who didn’t play this weekend, Conor Murray, (Malakai) Fekitoa and somebody else who I’m forgetting. So it’s gonna be a monstrous clash. They’re really a good team coming right. They’re coming good at the wrong time for us but I love the rugby culture.

“I mean, when we were going into the URC (for the first time), we used to think we’re going to play teams like Leinster and Munster. Well, here we have it. Munster in the final. Brilliant.”

READ MORE: United Rugby Championship: ‘We go to Cape Town with belief’ says Munster boss Graham Rowntree

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