In early 2007, a member of the Varsity Cup Committee called University of Cape Town coach John Dobson to explain how the relegation element of the competition would work.
It was a strange call. A ball had yet to be kicked, but it left Dobson in no doubt as to where the organisers felt his team would linger at end of the competition’s inaugural year. Last. Writes Robert Lemmer fro sarugby.com
Three years later, UCT are the second most successful team in Varsity Cup history – second only to their bitter rivals, Maties. Despite the prejudice of a thousand doubters the university has qualified for two finals and finished 3rd in their most unsuccessful campaign.
The story of their success is even more impressive because – unlike every other team in the competition – no one gets paid. Not the players, not the coaches, not the doctors, physio or biokenitists. So the question is, how in the face of growing professionalism when all the other teams are investing huge sums – rumours suggesting that a University from Pretoria is poised to spend close on R9-million on this next Varsity Cup campaign – have UCT managed not only to survived, but to conquer?
Some of the answer lies in coach Dobson; a deep thinker, known for often quoting Yates or Frost to his players. He believes the job of the university’s rugby club is to create ‘thoroughly good men’. A phrase he refers to often. He looks for players to take ownership of their actions and play a role in shaping the team environment. Throughout the season he spends more time on the elements of this concept, than on technical rugby matters – which he leaves largely to his assistants.
He also puts a premium on having fun. Last year – just after the team had played badly– Dobson and the other coaches went to a costume-hire shop and picked half a dozen Disney outfits. When the laughter on the training pitch finally died down Dobson challenged everyone to an egg and spoon race. A week later the team crushed Pukke in the semi-final.
They do other things differently too. They wear pink. They are the only team in the competition to have a female manager. They have a mental performance coach, and Sherylle Calder – the famous eye doctor – is there too. The team mascot is a donkey named Pancakes.
And word is starting to spread. Players who grew up Afrikaans and North, are beginning to turn down big money offers in favour of playing under Table Mountain. More and more of them every year.
But the achievements of the club are incomplete. Despite all their success, they’ve still never won the Varisty Cup. And perhaps it’s here that their refusal to pay players plays out. The club has a David to Goliath approach. The more opposition teams spend on players and resources, the more ammunition UCT have to pull together and fight on. They thrive on being outsiders.
But, somewhere deep down, that must instil an inferiority complex in the team. In both games against Maties last year, they took sixty minutes to get into the contest as if they were simply
overawed by the massive rugby machine Doc Craven built. If they continue their reliance on a have-nots mentality, will they ever truly believe they are good enough to be champions?
In 2007 Dobson’s biggest challenge was to make his players believe they could be good. He did. And they were. The challenge now for new coach Kevin Foote is for UCT to become great and that is perhaps a far, far greater test.