DHL Stormers Head Coach John Dobson is ‘thrilled’ with the players he and his coaching team have at their disposal going forward following an uncertain period in South African rugby.
The DHL Stormers managed to hold on to the majority of their players through a 21-day ‘transfer window’ which formed part of the South African rugby industry’s financial impact plan to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.
World Player of the Year Pieter-Steph du Toit signed a contract extension to keep him in the Cape until at least the British and Irish Lions tour next year, while Springbok fullback Warrick Gelant also signed to offset the loss of Jean-Luc du Plessis and Cobus Wiese in the window, while Dillyn Leyds and Wilco Louw’s respective departures at the end of the season were agreed earlier in the year.
Dobson said that while it is disappointing to lose players like Du Plessis and Wiese, both players have understandable reasons for looking to further their careers overseas.
“Jean-Luc and his family have been a part of the rich heritage of Western Province Rugby, but we can’t fault him for wanting to earn what he would be earning in Japan. We also understood that when he came off contract he would have gone anyway, so he leaves with our blessing and we are obviously very sad to see him go.
“Cobus Wiese has been looking to go overseas for personal reasons and we were going to release him anyway.
“Both guys have been good for Province and we understood their personal circumstances,” he said.
In reality the damage could have been much worse and Dobson paid credit to the players who showed great loyalty and faith to what the DHL Stormers are building towards in the future.
“It was obviously great for us to keep the rest of the squad, a lot of credit must go to those big-name players who were in demand and who were loyal from the start of the 21-day period.
“Our first job is to try and get the guys to enjoy working and playing here, I know in some of their cases that makes a big difference. Some guys got incredible offers, so whether that is the team environment, where their families are or where they see themselves long-term it is great that they stayed.
“We are absolutely thrilled with the squad we have got,” he said.
Dobson said that the fact that Du Toit agreed to an extension this week shows that his commitment to the cause off the field matches what he shows every week on the field.
“Pieter-Steph was always going to be a more complex case because he is the World Rugby Player of the Year and the interest in him. He has bought into the collective bargaining agreement and like the other players has taken the same pay cut and wants to be part of our future here. I think that is credit to him because I think the pressure would have been substantial.
“The one thing about him is that it doesn’t matter what the game is or who he is playing for, the way he works on the field, his physicality and gives 100% is incredible.
“He has had a serious injury and is busy with his rehab, but now that we have got clarity that really needs to be accelerated. We are hoping that he will be available when we get back on the field,” he said.
Dobson added that the way the various stakeholders worked together was vital to retaining so many quality players.
“The support from the board and the shareholder in keeping Pieter-Steph and this amazing squad together has been absolutely incredible. We don’t have billionare equity partners, we are owned by our clubs, which are going through enormous stress themselves.
“So the support of our shareholder (WPRFU) which is owned by the clubs, allowed us to do this. We must give a lot of credit to Zelt Marais the president and his executive for supporting us. It is great for the region and we are very grateful for that,” he said.
Before negotiations were entered into with Gelant, Dobson consulted with some of the players, including Damian Willemse who will now be able to focus on settling as primary playmaker at flyhalf.
“The first person before we even spoke seriously to Warrick was Damian and he was thrilled at the idea. When I told Siya about it he got on the phone to Warrick because he is a great professional and a good team man who looks after himself really well.
“We run it by the players, there is no point bringing in players who aren’t going to fit in.
“Damian is very happy where he is, it is what is good for the team and we are going to make him into a very good Vodacom Super Rugby flyhalf.
“Damian is one of the best Vodacom Super Rugby 10s in South Africa and he is going to get even better with more time to prepare and train and focus on that position,” he explained.
With Du Plessis heading to Japan and Willemse focusing on flyhalf, it also presents a good opportunity to develop some of the promising young flyhalves in the system.
“We are really pleased with the youngsters we have got at 10, there is Sacha Mngomezulu who is two or three years away, Kade Wolhuter has come back from Montpellier, Christopher Schreuder and Mossie Mostert who are all really good 10s.
“We are not limited, Damian can play 12 and Warrick can play on the wing, but it gives us a year or two to get these really talented young 10s through, so I am pretty excited by how that fits together for us,” Dobson added.
With a talented squad confirmed for the foreseeable future, the focus for Dobson and his coaching team now shifts to preparing the players for a return to rugby, whenever it is safe to do so.
Dobson explained that there are already a number of plans in place to ensure that the DHL Stormers are able to navigate what will be a completely different sporting landscape given the impact of the pandemic.
“We are going to go through another pre-season which will be a great opportunity to get the new players and those returning from injury back into how we are working, conditioned properly and enjoying the culture. So this is a vital period coming up.
“We will probably start with individuals, then move to stacks, which are groups of seven or eight and then into collective training and then the games.
“We have to be really careful when we get together as a group, we can control the training facility and we have some really good protocols and plans in place for that,” he said.
This will also involve operating a type of ‘two-squad’ system to ensure that they are covered from any possible positive infections.
“The consequence of a positive test is that the rest of the guys that person has been in contact with are out for two weeks, so if we do get a positive test, that squad won’t be able to play the next game.
“We will probably be working around the idea of having two squads which never touch or mix. We are lucky with our depth that we could probably do that, or we could overlap if everybody is clear.
“The screening is of course going to be very regular, but we would not have our entire squad training together the week before the game because we run the risk of putting them all into isolation,” Dobson added.