Currie Cup final: A tale of two coaches

If the Currie Cup final was a movie, the likeable John Dobson would be the hero and the fiery Robert du Preez would be the villain.

If the deciding factor in the Currie Cup final between Western Province and the Sharks was down to the personalities of the two sides’ coaches, the hosts would be the overwhelming favourites to defend their title at Newlands on Saturday.

Thankfully, at the respective ages of 51 and 55, Western Province coach John Dobson and his counterpart at the Sharks, Robert du Preez Sr, won’t do the actual heavy lifting themselves come 4pm tomorrow in a replay of last year’s final.

For years, the way teams play has been said to reflect the psyche of their coaches. In the case of these two coaches, a Cape Town-reared soutie and a Potchefstroom-raised Afrikaner, the seemingly better-rounded Dobson would be in pole position to guide his team to another title.

As a player, Du Preez won multiple Currie Cup titles with Northern Transvaal and the Natal Sharks, and went on to be a Springbok. He certainly has the playing credentials over Dobson, whose stint as Province hooker led him to such exotic playing and coaching destinations as Italy and Portugal, where he apparently also ran the stadium bar as the overseas pro.

Off the field, Dobson has outstripped Du Preez, winning at every level he has coached. Dobson’s charges have occasionally had campaigns in which they’ve gone undefeated, while Du Preez, whose teams have done well at the club and Varsity Cup levels, is yet to win anything at the first-class level.

Difference between the two

To capture the most striking difference between the two, one is widely and affectionately called “Dobbo” while the other is, well, just plain Robert. Even their personas in the media, a space so homogenised where coaches speak in the same old cliches, the two have been markedly different. Dobson comes across as thoughtful, engaging and forthcoming, while Du Preez has the dubious honour of having completed a full post-match press conference in two-and-a-half minutes (which, of course, included questions).

Away from the superficial confines of press conferences, Dobson is said to be the quirky sort with a “strong dislike for normal”, according to Tom Dawson-Squibb, a high performance coach, speaker and facilitator, and member of Dobson’s management team. The two met by chance in 2010 at the University of Cape Town (UCT), while Dobson was coach there. How they came to work together is a case in point of Dobson’s flexible approach. “He asked me if I could do a couple of sessions with the team. When they won, he said I should come back, and when they won again he said I should work with them for the rest of the campaign,” says Dawson-Squibb.

Dobson’s “unique character” was highlighted during last year’s Currie Cup final, when he sent his team off to battle to the words of Dylan Thomas’ classic poem, Do not go gentle into that good night. He is known to spice up the team environment with rap battles, hip-hop dance-offs and the odd music video or two.

“At UCT, he got the guys to do a film script and act it out, and took them to ballet classes,” says Dawson-Squibb. “The point was to get them outside their comfort zones and to be able to laugh at themselves.”

In stark contrast, Du Preez has been described by two of his former Sharks team-mates as being “conservative, clinical, rigid and dogmatic”, and not being as open to different thinking as Dobson is said to be.

To underscore Du Preez’s supposed rigidity, one of his former team-mates tells a story where an upstart forward had the temerity to try a box kick, which is the sole preserve of the scrum half, only to earn Du Preez’s wrath. “Your job is to tackle, don’t you ever kick again!” commanded the stern Du Preez.

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20 September 2018: John Dobson during the DHL Western Province training session and press conference at DHL Newlands Stadium in Cape Town. (Photograph by Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images)

Democracy vs dictatorship

Dobson is credited with an ability to “bring different people together and help them make memories”. It has been said that Du Preez’s fiery temper and mood swings have alienated all manner of would-be allies at the Sharks, not to mention the grumbles that he is not open to the customary input of former players, something that has always been part of the Sharks’ setup.

The decision to move former child prodigy Curwin Bosch from his preferred position of flyhalf to accommodate his son Robert Jr (Du Preez’s other sons Jean-Luc and Dan are also starting players in the team), apparently still has some former players up in arms.

“Dobbo’s definitely inclusive, he makes everyone feel part of something bigger, and his key strength is creating meaning in campaigns. It might just be the SuperSport Rugby Challenge, but he finds a way to make it feel like a World Cup campaign,” says Dawson-Squibb.

While Du Preez has been painted as narrow and one-dimensional in his outlook, the poetry and history obsessed Dobson is said to be more balanced. “He’s not big on rules and codes of conduct, but he is on values and rewards. The interesting thing is that as old school as he is (he’s still got traditional values because his father was a teacher), he also allows leaders to come through in the team and understands the millennial players and what they want.”

That said, Dobson’s broader interests are highly unlikely to win the game for his team, especially against a strong Sharks side, which, when the mood takes it, can marry brutally confrontational rugby with a dizzying offloading game to devastating effect (Du Preez can’t be that bad a coach if his team has made it to two consecutive finals).

But if one were to criticise the Sharks, it would be that they are inconsistent and struggle to put teams away despite possessing an embarrassing amount of riches in wide attacking players. This is something one could interpret as mirroring Du Preez’s purported mood swings and reluctance to give his players too much leeway on the field.

By contrast, Dobson’s team, in winning all seven of their games this Currie Cup campaign, have had to adjust to the stress of a shortened competition; three weeks of byes; adapting to playing in heavy rain; conquering teams at altitude; and showing character against a determined Blue Bulls team, which was the better side in the first 60 minutes of their semifinal.

And, to top it all, Province players were made to endure the pain of training to Enrique Iglesias’ Hero this week. This while the Sharks’ typically “vanilla” players ironically released a music video for their own rendition of Vanilla Ice’s Ice, Ice, Baby.

It will be interesting to see whether Dobson’s out-of-the-box thinking or Du Preez’s pared-down approach prevails on the day.

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