Stormers boss John Dobson. Ben Brady/INPHO

'They had a choice. Every one of them said, 'No, we want to come to Leinster''

Stormers head coach John Dobson is one of the most interesting characters in the game.

JOHN DOBSON IS not your average rugby coach and the way he tells it, the Stormers boss fell into this line of work accidentally. It was never a master plan to end up where he is.

Dobson, who won the URC at the first time of asking last season, played to a good level and was capped by Western Province but he wasn’t a diehard rugby nerd who obsessed over the game. Upon hanging up his boots, he thought he was done with the sport.

His early adult years were focused on finishing his law degree and then swiveling into media as the co-founder of the Rugby365 website. While he also has a business qualification, Dobson went on to earn a degree in creative writing. He has authored two satirical novels, ‘Year of the Gherkin’ in 2012 and ‘Year of the Turnip’ in 2016.

Along the way, he was enticed into coaching while studying at the University of Cape Town before a brief spell in Italy, where he had also played. Back in South Africa, he rose through the ranks with Western Province’s U21 side, their Currie Cup team, and on into his current role as Stormers boss in 2019. That came soon after another western province, Connacht, had looked to bring him to Ireland.

By the time Dobson was able to really make his presence felt with the Stormers, the pandemic was over and they had moved from Super Rugby to the URC. They scorched their way to last season’s title, beating Edinburgh and Ulster in the play-offs to secure a glorious home final against the Bulls in Cape Town.

Dobson and his players are on a mission. One of their mantras is ‘Make Cape Town Smile’ and they want to help the whole province of Western Cape to realise its full rugby ambition. Listen to Dobson speak passionately about the sheer scale of rugby talent and passion in that neck of the woods and, with a population of more than 7 million people in the province, it’s a little scary for the rest of the world.

The next step in that big plan is to make a statement in Dublin this evening. The Stormers have brought their big Springbok guns as they look to down Leinster [KO 7.35pm, TG4/Premier Sports]. Their people will be watching on from shebeens and bars back home in South Africa.

“We have to put down a flag,” said Dobson earlier this week in Dublin. “In my presentation today, I actually showed the players a picture of the American Marines but I changed the flag to a Stormers flag.

“We have to win against a good opposition in the Northern Hemisphere to be what we want to be. We messed it up in Ulster [where a weakened Stormers team was beaten 35-3 in January], but we’ve brought our proper team here now less one or two. 

“We have to make a statement that we can win. We can’t rely on South African conditions or local match officials or that to win. We’re going to put everything into this one.”

damian-willemse The Stormers have brought their Boks. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

It helps that South Africa internationals Damian Willemse, Frans Malherbe, Marvin Orie, Deon Fourie, and captain Steven Kitshoff all return to the Stormers’ starting XV after more than a month away as part of the Springboks’ preparations for a big year. Leinster are missing their Grand Slam winners.

With a Champions Cup round of 16 clash to come against Harlequins back in Cape Town next weekend, Dobson gave his star men an option to stay at home but they all opted in for the trip to Dublin. They want an Irish scalp.

“That surprised me because we’ve got a Currie Cup game on Sunday in Durban and I said to the Springboks, ‘Would you rather play in Durban?’” explained Dobson.

“Harlequins is our main game now, in terms of it’s the DHL Harlequins against DHL Western Province at DHL Stadium and there’ll be 50,000 people there and it’s knock-out.

“These guys have been off for two months, it’s our main game in terms of performance, so I said, ‘Would you rather get ready in Durban? I’ll stay behind with you, we’ll train in Cape Town and then go and play and be ready for Harlequins.’

“They said, ‘No, no, we want to come to Leinster’. It’s quite a statement.

“So we had Steven Kitshoff and Frans Malherbe in economy class, via Doha. They could have taken a way out.

“But after we got a hiding in Belfast, everyone who got on that bus afterwards realised if we want to survive and be in the final, it probably will be here [at the RDS, given that Leinster could have home advantage in the URC final]. We want to get the experience of being here.

“So, they had a choice and every one of them; Kitsoff, Malherbe, Deon Fourie, Marvin Orie, Damian Willemse, they all said they wanted to come.”

The Irish sides have quickly become the new barometer for the Stormers since moving into the URC and Dobson said they’re a bit worried about Munster’s form ahead of their clash in Cape Town in three weekends’ time.

“We think they’re turning,” said Dobson of Graham Rowntree’s side.

Meanwhile, there is already a proper rivalry developing with Ulster, who the Stormers beat in last season’s sem-finals with the clock deep in the red. 

Dobson said the Stormers’ fans love watching them against the Irish teams and he reckons there will be more travel for those games in the future, both ways.

john-dobson Dobson in Dublin this week. Ben Brady / INPHO Ben Brady / INPHO / INPHO

“I reckon you’re going to have jumbo jets of Munster fans coming to Cape Town in the future, definitely,” said Dobson.

“I’m not saying it to be sycophantic but the Irish teams are probably a step up for us in terms of public interest. Munster will be a big rugby occasion, we’ll have a really good crowd in Cape Town Stadium.”

The Stormers are second in the URC table heading into tonight, with a huge amount to play for both on and off the pitch. A home quarter-final and semi-final would be “worth a fortune to us financially” says Dobson, which reminds us all over again that the Stormers won the URC while in administration. They still are but the outlook is optimistic.

Dobson and the Stormers are all in on the URC, even with the challenges that the travel brings. Their fans have really taken to the competition.

“They love the URC now, the time zone is brilliant, and they’re starting to know the teams,” he said.

“We’re watching Super Rugby Pacific and the guys aren’t impressed with that. It looks very different to the product we’ve got, which is much more Test or international rugby-based. Contested set-piece, they use scrums like a restart. Every scrum in the URC is ‘jeepers, creepers, which was is it going to go?’”

Dobson is excited about the prospect of South Africa and Ireland going up against each other at the World Cup in a few months’ time when he believes the Boks’ ability to hammer the Irish breakdown could be crucial. He’s hoping something similar can help the Stormers deny Leinster their usual flow tonight.

“It’s two different philosophies,” said Dobson.

“We’re trying to shut it [the attack] down, absorb, absorb, strike. These guys are coming at you all the time.

“It’s really going to be the Irish breakdown, two guys over the ball collapsing, stuff like that; whereas we need to make that a three, four-second ruck. South Africans have the ability to do that.

“We’d be a bit braver than the Springboks, but it will be a similar challenge. Can linespeed slow down their attack? Can we slow down their ball to allow us to get the linespeed? Like the Springboks, we want double tackles.

“There’ll be a lot of interest in the Irish-South African games.” 

- This article was updated at 8.55am to correct ‘barometre’ to ‘barometer’ in the 20th paragraph.

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