John Dobson believes his UCT side are underdogs despite home ground advantage in the Varsity Cup opener this Monday.
Dobson has rehashed the old tune employed by many a coach ahead of a crucial match, attempting to dull the expectation of the UCT faithful before their crunch game against Stellenbosch. He seemed eager to point out the player-drain experienced by the Ikeys between the two seasons.
“We’ve lost the Forward of the Tournament [Herbie Mayosi] and the Back of the Tournament [James Martin] from last year, as they’re both too old this season.
“Then there’s also no Mat Turner, who’s now playing for Bristol, and, of course, Kyle Brown is now an SA Sevens player.”
Little has been said of hooker JP Koster’s defection to the Maties, which may indeed be a sore subject. Also slightly hampered by injury with lock Mike Ledwidge (back) and centre Tim Whitehead (groin) sidelined, UCT have certainly felt the loss of significant players.
However, the message remains, don’t count us out.
“I’ve said it before, we’re a victim of our own success,” said Dobson. “So instead of a few tweaks Fleckie and I have had to do an extreme makeover, but it’s up to this new team to lay down a marker early on in 2009 and carve out its own niché.”
JJ Gagiano is back in the republic after his Test rugby stint for the US Eagles in late 2008 while Western Province Currie Cup flyhalf Matt Rosslee rejoins the side in a admirable attempt to abate attention on the player drain.
“Guys like JJ and Matt are all a year older and wiser now,” said Dobson, clearly pleased to have a few ‘old’ heads among his fresh crop of players.
UCT have managed to strengthen their coaching staff considerably. World Cup-winning coach Jake White and former Springbok captain Bob Skinstad have joined the UCT family to serve as technical advisors while Professor Tim Noakes has taken office as the side’s strategist.
Fresh faces in the UCT mix, Tiger Bax and Dane Johnson are welcomed by the Ikeys, as well as those making the step up from the U20 ranks of UCT.
“It’s hard to rebuild again,” Dobson added, “but I think the success of the Varsity Cup and our progression to the final in 2008 has meant that the UCT production line and competition for places is very intense, which can only be a good thing.
Dobson and backline coach Robbie Fleck have realised the price they have paid for being too near-sighted in their 2008 approach.
“A big lesson we have taken from last year is that you literally have to plan ahead for more than just the one season. Whilst this year is obviously a big focus for us, we also have to keep an eye on 2010 at the same time.”
Maintaining a belief that his side can do well will become harder if UCT are to go down against Stellenbosch this Monday. But Dobson insists any apprehension held by fans at the mention of their opposition is not shared by team nor management.
“To be honest, our only focus at this stage is on the first game. Yes, it happens to be a repeat of last year’s final, but we’re simply looking at it as our first game of a new season and, hopefully, another step in the direction in this new era for UCT rugby.”
By Rory Keohane