He quotes Shakespeare, is a disciple of Dylan Thomas’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog and is inspired by the power of Samuel Johnson’s prose that “chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken”.
He is awed by Stephen Fry’s brain, wants to sit and talk with President Cyril Ramaphosa and would want to interrogate Robert Mugabe because “he has some serious explaining to do”.
He still has the vinyl of Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense, and the Cure’s Disintegration is his favourite album. “Plainsong, Closedown and Picture of You are all anthems,” he says.
Clearly, John Dobson isn’t your average professional rugby coach. He’s versed in the ways of the world, a man with an appreciation of culture, of adaptation and literature. He is also a man aware of the luxury that has defined much of his life, but equally understanding of the injustice of privilege.
“I lived what many would think the ultimate life. I was schooled at Bishops (in Cape Town) and spent a very long time studying and playing rugby at UCT. They were glory days in one sense but also inglorious in another.
“It was life in a bubble. It was privilege. It was about the best education, playing the sport I love and then heading to the bar at UCT. It wasn’t that I necessarily came from wealth but I did come from privilege because my dad taught at Bishops and by extension I was enrolled there,” says Dobson, whose father Paul Dobson was educator, referee, author and is renowned as South African rugby’s most revered historian.
It was rugby, more than schooling, that bonded father and son.
“We haven’t spoken about it since 1982 and I’ve never publicly spoken about it but I was really a rebel at school and my notoriety peaked when I was suspended for two terms for breaking into the school tuckshop. My dad was not impressed and till this day remains unimpressed by those antics.”
But it was Dobson senior who also introduced his privileged son to the real world of Western Cape rugby and also Western Cape society - a world that transcended white privilege.
“I grew up loving Newlands Stadium and living there on Saturdays whenever Western Province played, but my dad showed me another side of Western Cape Rugby, which was the non-racial old SARU. He also took me into the coloured community, socially and in sport. I remember us watching a Currie Cup final at Newlands on the Saturday and a SA Cup final at the Green Point track on a Sunday.
“There was so much passion and rivalry in the respective Currie Cup and SA Cup finals. It was so obviously wrong that these two rugby cultures lived in isolation of each other.”
Dobson’s rugby education of what constituted Western Province rugby had started. It wasn’t exclusive to the people of the Danie Craven and Jan Pickard stands at Newlands. There was a world beyond Bishops and UCT.
Dobson, a student of knowledge, is also a soldier of experience. It was one thing to know the theory of what was right and wrong but he would only know how it felt if he experienced life outside of his Ivory Tower.
“I left UCT and played for Northerns Avonwood for two years. I was the only white player in a club of coloured players,” says Dobson.
“You have to understand that this was back in the dark days and I was always a target when we played against white teams. I played hooker and always took the first punch at the first scrum, which didn’t mean I didn’t land a few of my own.”
Dobson was picked for the Western Province League team, which was a feeder to Western Province. This was pre-unity, when rugby in every province in South Africa was defined along race and not sporting pedigree.
“I played with some brilliant players. I trained alongside some of the most skilled players. None of them were white. The exclusion in the system was so wrong. Everything was wrong about how I lived and how many of my teammates lived.
“My early rugby memories at UCT were about playing hard, then drinking hard and living the party. When I played at Northerns Avonwood, we’d play a great game and most of the squad would shower, put on their work clothes and head to night shift jobs. I’ve never forgotten what I saw back then. I saw young men who understood responsibility and hardship but also young men who were wonderful mates and bloody good rugby players.”
What Dobson didn’t quite grasp was the division within the coloured community over the mantra of no normal sport in an abnormal society. He didn’t know the politics of non-racial sport and the distaste within the coloured community for those coloured clubs who effectively aligned with white clubs and played as the Federation within the white system.
“Had I been more educated back then I would have sought out a non-racial SARU club to get a greater understanding of it all,” he says.
“I know a lot more now and that is why it is imperative Western Province and the Stormers of 2020 reflect a unified brotherhood who relate to everyone in the Western Cape."
Dobson wants Western Province and the Stormers to play at the Cape Town Stadium. He loved Newlands for what he knew it to be as a youngster but as a grown man he also gets what Newlands represented to so many outside the white rugby following.
“Western Province rugby isn’t about Kelvin Grove it isn’t about exclusion and elitism it’s about unity and about being part of the people of this province.
“I have been in the Western Province coaching system since 2010 and I have been in the Western Province rugby system since I was a kid. I have seen the changes. I have witnessed the transformation, but I also know that Western Province and Stormers rugby is about the future, and not the past, although we must take the best of the past in making a new future.
“Next year is the 21st anniversary of the 1999 Stormers Men in Black. That was an unbelievable year for the Stormers. They were the people’s team in that year. We, in 2020, have to get back that passion, that support and that humility. We have to finally stand up as the Stormers and be a representation of everyone in the Western Cape.
“We have to do it through style of play, through celebration in our play and also through embracing every culture, race and religion because that is the DNA of rugby in this province.”
Dobson won trophies as WP U21 coach. He won with WP in the Vodacom Cup and SuperSport Series and took Province to a Currie Cup final. Now he wants a first Stormers Super Rugby title. Equally, he wants a team of players who bond with each other and live life with a smile.
“I love Under Milkwood and (Dylan) Thomas’s moving poem And death shall have no dominion. He wrote about fighting against ageing and death. He wrote about the joys of life, yet he died at 39. I want our players to appreciate their profession and of being alive.”
Thomas also wrote: “Do not go gentle into the good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day, rage against the dying of the light.”
If Dobson wants his 2020 Stormers to always fight to the end, he also wants them to live the words of Henry V (Shakespeare): "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers - for whoever sheds his blood with me today shall be my brother."@mark_keohane