Wednesday, 15 June 2022 11:12

The tale of two very different coaches who restored the pride.

By Gavin Rich

Making the inaugural Vodacom United Championship final is a triumph for both protagonists given where they have come from, but it would be remiss to overlook the contrasting challenges and journeys faced by the respective coaches in the renaissance of their respective franchises.

When the Vodacom Bulls’ Jake White took charge as Covid arrived in 2020, the once proud union was struggling to assert itself after a decade of failure dating back to their last Super 14 triumph in 2010. White’s strict, hard-nosed approach has worked for the Bulls, he has made the right recruitment decisions, and in the two years he has been in Pretoria they have won two Currie Cup titles and the Super Rugby Unlocked competition.

In recent months, the Bulls have also added strings to their bow, such as an offload game that is second to none in terms of accumulated offloads in the URC, that are evolving them towards being what many would regard as the perfect team.

And yet that didn’t appear to be the case at the start of the year, and in some ways this URC season has been a microcosm of White’s tenure at the Bulls: When the Bulls returned from their first overseas tour last October, they were listing last but one on the overall URC log, and now they are in the final.

What White has had on his side though that the DHL Stormers’ John Dobson most emphatically hasn’t had, however, is the organisational effectiveness and financial muscle that came from the Bulls’ equity deal with two South African billionaires, Johann Rupert and Patrice Motsepe, who own 74 per cent of the Bulls company.

The Bulls aren’t in the same economic stratosphere that the Sharks now are thanks to their American investors, but perhaps that has been a good thing because White, like Dobson at Western Province, has arguably contracted more wisely than the Durbanites.

JAKE NEGOTIATED CALMER WATERS THAN DOBBO

The point though is that White has had to negotiate much calmer waters than Dobson, who was announced as the Stormers coach at a stage of 2019 when the consequences of Zelt Marais’ ascension to the WP presidency were first becoming apparent.

To be fair to Dobson’s predecessors, there isn’t a WP or Stormers coach from the last two decades who did not have to put up with the interference and politicking which, by the reckoning of some, has made the premier Cape coaching job the hardest in rugby. But what came before was not nearly as calamitous as Marais’ reign.

Eventually it led to SA Rugby stepping in and taking over the administration of WP rugby, but that didn’t happen in time for Dobson to win the long and protracted battle to keep some of the union’s celebrated marquee players. It was mainly his connection with the Americans that saw the Bok captain Siya Kolisi move to Durban, but the uncertainty would have played a role in the departure of a host of other stars such as Bongi Mbonambi, 2019 World Rugby Player of the Year Pieter-Steph du Toit, Bok centre Damian de Allende and a clutch of stalwarts such as Jaco Coetzee, Cobus Wiese and Juarno Augustus.

With the union in such dire financial straits, and bankruptcy was beckoning long before it became official, Dobson would have had a monumental job keeping those players who did stay loyal committed to the cause and relatively immune from what was happening upstairs in the administration.

THE COACH KEPT IT TOGETHER

That the Stormers were able to survive the ructions that put WP rugby on the front pages of newspapers for all the wrong reasons is probably all down to Dobson and his ability to manage both upwards and downwards. Sharks CEO Dr Eduard Coetzee, no doubt because of the number of times he was told by WP players that they would not leave the Cape as long as Dobson was the coach, once told me that in his view it is Dobson that held WP together, and he is right.

Interim WP CEO Rian Oberholzer has done a great job of making Dobson’s job easier since he came in as the SARU appointment, and in many ways the current Stormers success is a vindication of all of those who through a period of many years pointed to the WP elected officials as the biggest obstacle to Cape rugby success.

With the calm, measured and efficient Oberholzer there, Dobson doesn’t have to work through committees to get his proposals adopted, he doesn’t have to put up with the interference that happened daily for him and his predecessors for so long. Thanks to Oberholzer’s presence, he and his players can focus on rugby as the main thing.

But that Oberholzer’s presence has calmed the waters should not detract from what Dobson has achieved. For a while he was almost a quasi-CEO himself due to the complete dysfunction of the WP administration, and John Mitchell will tell you that it was when that happened to him at Western Force that things started to go wrong between him and the players at the Perth franchise.

THERE WAS NO MONEY TO SHOW

With no equity partner, there would always be a battle to give a positive response to a player agent who asks Dobson to “Show me the money”, and in some instances players have remained loyal only because of their trust and love for the coach.

Dobson spoke after his team’s quarterfinal win over Edinburgh about how much admiration he had for the players who remained loyal through all the hard times, and players like Steven Kitshoff, Frans Malherbe and Damian Willemse could easily have moved away to more lucrative pastures. More recently, after the semifinal, Dobson spoke about Willemse bleeding “blue and white” due to the commitment that saw him play through the pain barrier of an injury in the win over Ulster.

But Dobson, who has a law degree, an MBA and a law degree in addition to having authored two works of fiction, could just as easily have been talking about himself. It isn’t a secret that the Sharks put out feelers to him before he signed the deal with the Stormers in 2019, and it would have been a good move for him at that time given how bleak the WP outlook was.

Those who know him though will tell you about the passion he has for rugby in the region, something handed down through the gene pool by his late father Paul, a former top referee and much-loved Cape rugby man.

Like White at the Bulls, Dobson’s success at the Stormers hasn’t just come down to the environment he has created, but also to his shrewd contracting. Many would have raised their eyebrows when Dobson announced he was recruiting Manie Libbok to play flyhalf, but he made it clear why Libbok was coming to the Cape - and the player has delivered on that attacking rugby promise.

Perhaps in the Stormers’ case there was sometimes necessity rather than choice, but Dobson has made good business out of contracting players such as Hacjivah Dayimani who appeared to be surplus to other unions. Even the current star of the show, Evan Roos, was in that bracket if you consider that when he moved back to the Cape from the Sharks, he was behind Sikhumbuzo Notshe and Phepsi Buthelezi in the Durban team’s pecking order at No 8.

White’s approach at the Bulls appears to be to contract players that won’t be lost to the Bulls because of Springbok duty, and that has worked well for him. He likes to talk about how other teams, particularly the Sharks, have more current Boks, but that works for his team on more than just a motivational level.

DIFFERENT STAGES OF COACHING JOURNEYS

Dobson and White are different people and different types of coaches and are both at a different stage of their respective journeys when it comes to URC level rugby. White coached the Springboks to World Cup glory nearly 15 years ago now, he was part of Nick Mallett’s Bok coaching team as long ago as 1998 and he had his first taste of international franchise rugby as Hugh Reece-Edwards’ assistant at the Sharks in 2000.

Dobson was still playing as a hooker for various club sides and occasionally for Western Province feeder teams as a hooker back then. He went on to coach the WP under-21 team under Rassie Erasmus' tutelage in 2010, thus beginning is long period of employment at the Cape union, but Dobson's first foray into coaching came as head coach of the UCT Tigers in the inaugural Varsity Cup in 2008, when he guided them to a final they lost to fellow Cape rivals Maties.

By then of course White was already a World Cup winner, though those close to him will tell you he wasn’t revelling in the achievement in the way he should have. White’s brinkmanship when his contract renewal came under discussion during the buildup to the 2007 World Cup worked against him, and while he initially said he was happy to walk away from the job, he changed his tune at a press conference in Paris the morning after his team’s win over England in the final.

As a World Cup winning coach, it would have made sense for SA Rugby to speak White into continuing as Bok coach, but one thing White has done almost as consistently as he’s won trophies, is rub people up the wrong way with his at times abrasive personality. The upshot was that Peter de Villiers became the new Bok coach and White was left to sulk.

DRIVEN TO PROVE HIMSELF OVER AND OVER

If White had been given another run with the Boks then, we might not still be seeing him coaching top level rugby. It was arguably his own perception that he was treated badly that drove White to make a return to coaching. He wanted to prove himself and the best way to do that would have been to coach an international team, but he couldn’t get an opening at the nations of his preference, England and Australia.

He did though get a gap at Super Rugby level with the Australian franchise, the Brumbies, and it was there that he proved wrong those detractors who felt he’d find the campaign management required in a long competition more of a challenge than coaching the Boks in a seven game World Cup. The Canberra team had been struggling when he took charge, just like the Bulls were when he took up the coaching reins in Pretoria in 2020, but he took them to the Super 14 final.

His objective at the Brumbies was to land the Australian national job but when he failed to do that he set his sights on making waves back home again. It was no secret to those around him that his one season stint at the Sharks in 2014 was directed at his own ambition of trying to regain the Bok job, the idea being that a Sharks Super Rugby success would be hard to ignore.

DIDN’T WORK OUT IN DURBAN

It didn’t work out for White in Durban though. Although the Sharks won the South African conference for the first time under his guidance, his hard-nosed winning is everything pragmatism saw the Sharks employ a conservative playing strategy that did not go down well with the Kings Park faithful. Officially White resigned from that job, but he was really pushed.

White has coached in France and in Japan subsequent to that, but the Bulls have arguably been his best fit as a coach outside of the Boks between 2004 and 2007. A former school-teacher, White has an old school approach, with discipline being central to his coaching philosophy.

At the Sharks he was unpopular with the players because he decided to shake them up by introducing an office type 9-to-5 environment, with the players required to be at the Sharks headquarters even when they weren’t training.

One of those disgruntled players though later told me that while White wasn’t liked, there was no doubt he was a good rugby coach, and that same player later followed him to Montpellier.

That possibly sums up White. His ambition, both to further his own career and to win trophies for the teams he coaches, sometimes leads to flash-points that don’t make him popular with the opposition and even those he is supposed to be working with. Like Eddie Jones though, he does tend to get the job done when it comes to the chore part of his business and that is what the Bulls would have been looking for when they appointed him after a decade of failure at the union.

In contrast to White, you’d struggle to find a player who does not revel in the more relaxed yet still focused environment that Dobson creates and who doesn’t like him. You don’t ever hear players refer to Dobson as ‘Coach’, which seems to be the South African way, but as Dobbo.

LEARNED ON THE JOB

When Dobson first took over, he had an experienced coaching team with him. Some of his assistants were in just their second season of Super Rugby when the last edition of that tournament kicked off in late January 2020, for others it was their first exposure to that level of rugby.

Inevitably then there were teething issues in the beginning, and while the WP administrative internecine conflict was happening, WP and the Stormers struggled. Dobson started out with what wasn’t far short of a Bok starting pack, so it made sense for him to try and replicate the Bok World Cup game-plan.

His immediate predecessor, Robbie Fleck, had learned too late that the highly physical approach that he’d built around the personnel he had available had the impact of creating a high rate of attrition. Dobson will probably admit now that it was the wrong way to go - by the time Covid ended the 2020 Super Rugby season, almost all of the Stormers Boks were already injured and they’d only played six games.

Subsequent to that, and particularly in the Preparation Series that preceded it and then the Rainbow Cup itself, Dobson started to evolve the Stormers game towards what it has become, with an adept offload game feeding X-factor strike runners that has created a vibrant, dynamic game that pleases the Cape rugby public. They are still a strong scrumming team, but have moved a long way from being the set-piece orientated team they were two years ago.

ALLOWING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

The coach empowers his players to back their skillset and it has been noticeable that every time a player new to Dobson and his environment has been interviewed by the media, he has spoken of the freedom that is given to him by the coach. Dobson has recruited and selected players who give him what he is looking for, and given them the freedom to do it.

Dobson had to duck some brickbats from critics along the way. In last year’s Currie Cup, his focus was on creating depth for the URC rather than winning a domestic trophy he got his own hands on back in 2017. It led to WP only just scraping into the playoffs, and some were calling for his head. And yet if you look at his selection policy for that campaign, with around five changes made for each game, it underlined the direction he was taking. And what he did then has paid off in this URC season.

In terms of what the Stormers have done in comparison to the pre-tournament expectation, ending as the top South African team in the league phase, second overall and now competition finalists, Dobson should be recognised as the URC Coach of the Season regardless of what happens on Saturday.

And even if he doesn’t win the main trophy, his efforts won’t have been in vain for the word is that the Stormers’ performances in the URC have taken their equity value from the R112-million that the would-be American investors offered two years ago to around R180-million currently.

If they get that kind of money the Stormers could become perennial big players not only in the URC but also in the European Champions Cup. Whoever does line up as a WP equity partner though would be well advised to follow what the Bulls have done with White by letting Dobson continue to have the main say in the recruiting process. Both franchises are in very good hands in that regard and their success has been driven by their coaches.