John Dobson takes great pride in the fact that it has taken close to 60 players to get the DHL Stormers to a second successive Vodacom United Rugby Championship Grand Final.
He is even more delighted that the defending champions will get to play at their Cape Town home, the DHL Stadium, in front of a record crowd for any league or play-off match in the URC.
Dobson’s Stormers have broken record after record in losing just eight from 41 matches since the URC was launched. Saturday’s Grand Final against Ireland’s Munster will be the Stormers’ sixth successive URC home play-off match and if the last two are the barometer the match will again provide for a rugby carnival.
The DHL Stormers put 40-plus points past the Vodacom Bulls in the quarterfinal and Ireland’s Connacht in a thrilling semifinal. They are a group that knows how to score tries, but equally they know how to defend their tryline and scrap for survival.
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The South African National Afrikaans Sunday Newspaper ‘Rapport’ headlined the semifinal win against Connacht as the work of ‘artists and streetfighters’. It was the most accurate description of the Cape-based franchise and the biggest compliment, according to Dobson.
‘It is exactly what these guys are: artists in the way they can fashion tries and create attacking opportunities, but the toughest of streetfighters. They will go into any alley and any gutter and do what is necessary to survive. And they can turn on the magician switch on a minute later and score from 80 metres with the most sublime awareness of space, support runners and accuracy in execution.’
Dobson’s Stormers have reveled in being true to their colours and their identity. The DNA of rugby in Western Province is in how the DHL Stormers play. They are a mix of magician and mongrel, which is what you will find at every school and club occasion in the province.
Winning has been important, but the way the squad has won has transformed the DHL Stadium from a ghost town post the Covid pandemic to a thriving threatre of rugby dreams.
Dobson, just months before the start of last season’s URC, lost several 2019 World Cup-winning Springboks to other clubs, in South Africa and abroad. These included the inspirational Siya Kolisi, the 2019 World Player of the Year Pieter-Steph du Toit, hooker Bongi Mbonambi, centre Damian de Allende, as well as Springbok prop Wilco Louw and winger Dillyn Leyds, who has won back-to-back Heineken Champions Cup matches for French club La Rochelle.
At this start of this season he lost Springbok utility back Warrick Gelant to Racing 92, while Sergeal Petersen departed to Japan’s Shimuzu Koto Blue Sharks. Several other prominent talents also sought a future elsewhere.
It did not deter Dobson and he started a rebuild that was more painful than pleasurable in the opening six weeks of last season, when the Stormers won just one from their first five. Context to this is that they have lost just eight from 41 and went 21 matches unbeaten at home before losing in the league to Munster.
Dobson’s focus this week has very much been on the special squad he has built over the last two seasons and on a playing group that extends whoever is in the match-day 23. He has had to balance playing in the URC, the Champions Cup and the domestic Currie Cup and he and his coaching team oversee both the DHL Stormers and Western Province squads.
‘It has been one hell of a ride,’ says Dobson. ‘We’ve travelled so much to be there for both teams and the integration has been of one large squad going from the URC into the Champions Cup and back into the Currie Cup and back in the URC. It has been one lesson after the other but there have been so many victories, internally and on the field, along the way.
‘The reward has been there for us as a coaching and management team because of the efforts of these players and their reward was that the DHL Stadium sold out in two hours and twenty-six minutes. It showed how much the local supporters want to be at the DHL Stadium on Saturday and how they want to turn that stadium into a sea of blue.
‘The support gives me goosebumps, but the players also provide the goosebumps in their dedication and desire to consistently perform for themselves and their support base, which, for me, is unrivalled.’
Dobson’s mantra two seasons ago was that for every departing Springbok, they’d make new ones, implement a playing style to make everyone smile and win more than they lose.
And he has done just that to get to a second successive Grand Final, or as he put it the league’s ‘Big Dance’.