Coaching the FNB UCT Ikeys in the FNB Varsity Cup was a life-changing experience for John Dobson, who went on to coach Western Province and the Stormers.VarsityCup.co.za asked him …
What was the state of club rugby when the FNB Varsity Cup began in 2008 and what impact did the tournament have on UCT rugby and your coaching career?
Club rugby at that stage was going through quite a lull, and the gap between club rugby and professional rugby was widening quite rapidly.
The Varsity Cup gave me an entrance into a semi-professional tournament. You train during the day and are much closer to provincial rugby.
The Varsity Cup put me on the radar as a coach, because – rightly or wrongly – university clubs were elevated above other clubs. We became almost like a super-club because of the Varsity Cup’s high profile.
At that stage, Chean Roux [Maties] and I would have been the two pre-eminent non-contracted coaches in the country and we became the next coaches to enter the professional setup.
If the Varsity Cup hadn’t been around, and I had just been coaching UCT to another fourth-place finish in the [Western Province] league, then I’d probably still be doing that!
What are your recollections of your time as head coach of UCT in the FNB Varsity Cup?
The 2008 tournament remains the highlight of my coaching career.
We were seeded eighth out of eight teams, so to finish top of the log – six points clear of Maties – was extraordinary. That year, teams had to play three games in five days in George over the Easter weekend and we won all three.
In the final against Maties at the Danie Craven Stadium, we were leading by a point and had the ball after the hooter. But we lost possession and Maties scored a try. That was a very UCT way to die! But I was proud of the way the guys behaved after the final.
In 2009, we finished second on the log, before losing our home semi-final to Pukke by two points, and in 2010 we lost another tight final to Maties in Stellenbosch.
In 2011, you were technical director when UCT staged that incredible comeback to beat FNB NWU-Pukke in the final in Potchefstroom. How did it feel to finally get your hands on the trophy?
It was a helluva relief. We felt we should have won the 2008 final so it got the monkey off our backs.
Before the Varsity Cup, UCT had never seriously been on the rugby radar. We had been part of the FNB Superbowl [which preceded the Varsity Cup] and embarrassed ourselves.
We always felt that we had let down the rugby traditions of the university and the likes of [UCT Springboks] HO de Villiers, Peter Whipp, Nick Mallett and Cecil Moss.
Winning the Varsity Cup in 2011 restored UCT’s pride.
What advice do you have for up-and-coming coaches in the FNB Varsity Cup and FNB Varsity Shield?
Unfortunately, when it comes to coaching opportunities, a lot is down to timing. There’s got to be a vacancy and you’ve got to make sure you’re at the front of the queue when there is. You can ensure you are by being technically superb and innovative with your players, and by being patient.
I had been coaching university rugby since 2004 when I was given an opportunity by Western Province [in 2010], so I don’t think people can say I just got lucky. My advice is don’t get despondent as a coach if you haven’t made it by year one or two – just stay at the front of the queue.
There are so few coaching jobs in professional rugby. The biggest decider – and this is true in all rugby, not just Varsity Cup – is not actually your bosses, the public, or the media, but the players.
Quite a few Varsity Cup players end up moving into professional setups. If a provincial union needs a forwards coach, a player will say “That guy at Tuks was excellent”. That’s how your name gets out there.
– This is the eighth instalment in a series of FNB Varsity Cup Changing Lives articles focusing on those whose lives were forever changed by Rugby That Rocks.