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There's more to Dobson than just vibes

Stormers coach John Dobson isn’t necessarily recognised as a technical or tactical genius, but he knows how to bring the right blend of people together. And his unorthodox methods have paid off
Thu, Jun 23, 2022

PHOTOS: Stormers Twitter

Until last weekend, when his team became the first side to win the inaugural United Rugby Championship (URC) title, the Stormers’ John Dobson ran the risk of being remembered for two things – an old meme and being a (good) vibes coach.

The former was on account of an infamous old picture of Dobson – who gives the impression watching his team play isn’t entirely different to settling down for a slasher film – looking particularly tortured in the “widow maker” (the coach’s box) while his team were doing some damn fool thing on the field.

The latter relates to Dobbo’s (Dobson’s name in rugby circles) reputation as a coach who has gone to great lengths to put a premium on team culture driving title wins. Causing a cosy condition, to bastardise Snoop Dogg from all those years ago, is all the rage as long as your team is winning.

But if it isn’t, win at all cost coaches – and a sceptical public – can dismiss all that “touchy feely” culture stuff as mere vibes. That’s why the Stormers’ fairytale victory against the Bulls was a vindication for Dobson’s quirky methods.

To be fair to Dobson – a qualified lawyer who also holds an MBA and a Masters degree in creative writing – his unconventional methods had been proven to work at junior, Varsity Cup, Vodacom Cup, SuperSport Rugby Challenge and Currie Cup level.

But for a myriad reasons they didn’t immediately translate to a similar impact at franchise level, his Stormers teams losing the vibrancy with which his sides had always played and seemingly conspiring to send their coach to an early grave in the process.

So rough was the patch that someone in rugby asked this writer as recently as six months ago why none of the rugby writers had called for Dobson’s head during that time. Upon reflection, the answer to that was instructive about Dobson’s success.

Covering sport can be soul-destroying because of how dismissive players, coaches and administrators can be towards those who do. Dobson is different to the blue-tick brigade because if he doesn’t answer right away, he usually apologises for not doing so when he gets back to you.

It’s a small example of being considerate, but when it comes to one of those “so and so must go” articles journos hold off and give those who treat them like human beings the benefit of the doubt. As an aside, I also remember being handed a beer by one of Dobson’s assistant coaches while trying to interview one of their players in their changing room a few years ago.

I don’t drink beer, but I did that day because of the gesture.

Of course, nobody is stupid enough not to understand that those small kindnesses are aimed at engendering a favourable outlook towards both coach and team, but Dobson understands what most of his contemporaries don’t seem to – everything is a people business.

Also, you ask yourself, if he can do that for an outsider and a practical stranger, how far would he go for his team?

As it turns out, there were mitigating circumstances to why performances were hard to come by in recent years for the Stormers. Western Province rugby – once the country’s wealthiest provincial union in terms of financial and player resources – was imploding and in free-fall, lurching from one leadership and financial crisis to another to the point where it is currently under administration.

The irony is that being put under administration freed Dobson up to do what he does best, which UCT Ikeys head coach Tom Dawson-Squibb once described to New Frame as an ability to “bring different people together and help them make memories”.

As a Western Province tragic because his late father Paul was a referee, rugby historian and author who was passionate about Province, Dobson took it upon himself to be everything at once for the union in an effort to save it.

This meant negotiating with sponsors directly to try and keep players, negotiating player contracts and ferrying new players around Cape Town himself, dipping into his own pocket when the union ran out of cash to supply the players with basic necessities like strapping.

While he was out there being the union’s Sisyphus, the Greek myth of the “absurd hero” who pushed the boulder up the hill, Dobson took his eye off the ball as a coach, and his focusing on that after the union was put under administration showed itself in improved results.

Dobson isn’t necessarily recognised as a technical or tactical genius, but he knows how to bring the right blend of people together. An example of this is his group of unsung hero assistants.

There’s defence coach Norman Laker, who is said to have opted not to be involved in his family’s property business for a job where hiring is as frequent as firing; underrated lineout coach Rito Hlungwani, a qualified Quantity Surveyor also rolling the dice with this coaching thing; and attack coach Dawie Snyman, who is doing his bit to emerge from the shadow of his famous ex-Springbok uncle with the same name.

More importantly, Dobson, who doesn’t have a pedigreed playing career but has extensive experience outside the sport, having founded the website rugby365.com, also knows how to get the best out of said people – particularly the players – through some very unorthodox ways.

Said to have a “strong dislike for normal” by Dawson-Squibb, Dobson is notorious for having made his players write and act out plays, do ballet dancing, do rap battles and listen to the strains of Enrique Iglesias’ Hero while preparing for games, all in the name of “getting them outside their comfort zones and to be able to laugh at themselves”.

The result is usually a happy team. But while it may not have been difficult to get players who played for one of the wealthier provincial unions in the world to have a craic a few years ago, maintaining a happy team with all the recent uncertainty will probably count as Dobson’s finest hour.

According to Dawson-Squibb, Dobson had always been good at building themes for campaigns: “He makes everyone feel part of something bigger, and his key strength is creating meaning in campaigns.

“It might be only a SuperSport Rugby Challenge but he finds a way to make it feel like a World Cup campaign.”

Given his bent for literature – he has published two novels, The year of the gherkin and The year of the turnip – Dobson has always turned to literature and poetry to motivate his troops.

That’s why theme for the URC campaign was, ironically, that of Sisyphus because of the situation they found themselves in when they began the tournament, with the players frequently sent to battle with Dylan Thomas’ words to “not go gentle into that good night”.

Having been 88-1 outsiders to win the tournament and themselves only hoped to win it in 2024, the Stormers went from hoping to make the top 8 to winning the whole thing. This was testament to the Stormers’ management team having sent the right psychological messages for them to keep shifting their goals despite having already attained what they set out to do.

By beating the Bulls, the Stormers won a clash of cultures of sort. While the Stormers will try anything, the Bulls – who had won every SA trophy since lockdown – come across as cold-eyed with ambition and have their team culture rooted in pragmatism and ruthlessness.

So the Stormers winning wasn’t only a victory for the romantics, it was also proof that there is more to Dobson than just vibes.

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