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Stormers coach John Dobson says Varsity Cup put players on “professional radar”

DHL Stormers head coach John Dobson describes the FNB Varsity Cup as a superb competition that serves as a massive safety net that allows South Africa’s considerable rugby talent to be spread more equitably.

‘Dobbo’ as he is affectionately known, famously guided the Stormers to Vodacom United Rugby Championship (URC) glory in the 2021-2022 season. He believes he would not have been the current Stormers head coach, had it not been for the FNB Varsity Cup competition.


The 54-year-old former hooker coached the FNB UCT Ikey Tigers for their first three seasons in the Varsity Cup from 2008 to 2010. He guided them to the final in the inaugural 2008 season, where they lost to Western Cape rivals FNB Maties and helped them reach the playoffs again in 2009, losing 17–19 to FNB NWU Pukke in the semi-final.


He returned as a technical adviser to his former assistant Kevin Foote for the Tigers' 2011 Varsity Cup campaign, which they won for the first time, beating FNB UP Tuks 26–16 in the final.


Dobbo therefore believes the Varsity Cup plays a key role in the development of players as well as coaches both locally and internationally.


“Yes, when I started as coach of the Ikeys in Varsity Cup, Matthew Proudfoot (former Scotland prop and NWU coach, who became a World Cup-winning Springbok forwards coach) and I coached against each other in 2008,”  says Dobson.


“For me the Varsity Cup is a massive safety net for guys who haven’t been identified at Craven Week.  You often get guys who played under 13 to under 19 at Grant Khomo and Craven Week youth tournaments. The coaches know them because they got the tracksuits. It’s quite hard for an outsider to break into the system unless the player is really good,” explains Dobson.


“You get two types of players, for example a player like (Stormers centre) Sulaiman (Hartzenberg) was already earmarked to play for the Stormers while he was still at school.


“Jurie Matthee (who made his URC debut for the Stormers at flyhalf against the Sharks in Durban) didn’t play Craven Week when he was at Paarl Gymnasium, so he didn’t make it at school level.


“From that point of view, the Varsity Cup makes the South African ecosystem much fairer for guys who did not make it at school level.


“The magic with a player like Jurie Matthee is that we would never have known about him if he didn't play Varsity Cup. Stormers lock Connor Evans is another example.


“In my days coaching at UCT, there were guys like Matthew Roslee, Kyle Brown and Don Armand who were nowhere on the professional radar, but because of the Varsity Cup, they went on to bigger things.


“More recently players from Maties like Neethling Fouche (Stormers captain and tight-head prop) and  Andre-Hugo Venter (hooker) were both called up to the Springbok-squad. Marcel Theunissen (loose forward) and JJ Kotze (hooker) were also not contracted when they came down here.


“Western Province did not bring them here, but they came here to play in the Varsity Cup. It’s massive for WP because at UCT, UWC, CPUT and Maties you have these sorts of mini academies that help with the development of talent.”


Dobson is also impressed by the current defending Varsity Cup Champions, the NWU Eagles’ (previously known as the Pukke) recruitment policy.


“Pukke are such a good team. They have a policy of not contracting SA Schools or even Craven Week players. It’s so cool because it makes the spread of South Africa’s rugby talent more equitable,” says Dobson.


“World Cup-winning Springbok-scrumhalf Herschel Jantjies in 2019 in Japan and Springbok-winger Kurt-Lee Arendse last year in France are perfect examples of players who both made their mark in the Varsity Cup for UWC before they became Springboks,” adds Dobson.


by Adnaan Mohamed


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