- Paul Dobson, who has died with Covid-19 at 84, is a doyen of SA refereeing who first officiated some 65 years ago.
- Son and present Stormers coach John says he wished he had ‘a fifth of my dad’s ethics and decency’.
- Dobson had progressive values and campaigned vigorously to achieve unity between the SARB and SARU referees, pre-democracy.
Paul Dobson was one of those rugby referees who, even in his middle age, just looked every inch a wise old sage of the game’s laws.
Sharing with his unmistakably look-alike son John, the Stormers head coach, a notably economical head of hair, “Dobbo senior” (as numerous rugby people in the Western Cape would come to label him, a reverence-laden distinguishing method) was never a whippet with a whistle, you see.
His ruddy-coloured, slightly bandy legs were not the quickest out of the blocks – more like the tractor chugging out of the shed after six months’ seasonal hiatus – and I have several recollections, from my early 1980s years as a senior club and schools-level amateur scribe, of Dobson having to gallantly negotiate the length of the field at times to signal an intercept try … perhaps a full minute after it actually been dotted.
“Get a move on, Dobbo,” pharmacist and freelance co-reporter Norman East, customarily prone to excitement, boomed out with great glee from alongside me in the Newlands press box on one such occasion … though mortified when his cry coincided with one of those sudden, inexplicable lulls in the crowd noise and he tried (too late) to button his lips as quickly as he had opened them.
I swear Dobson momentarily, toward the tail end of his marathon gallop, flashed a filthy look to the middle of the Grandstand, as if to say: “I’ll get you for that, East.”
He refereed his first match in the mid-1950s … the start of a lifelong love affair with that trade.
Dobson, who died on Monday aged 84, joined the Western Province Rugby Referees Society in 1968 and, in his later capacity as chair, was a key figure in the achievement of unity at that level in 1991 even before then-rival rugby governing bodies under apartheid, SARB and SARU, had joined hands on a macro level.
Honorary life president of the WP society, he was presented with a then-International Rugby Board (now World Rugby) Award for Distinguished Service to refereeing in 2012.
Almost but not quite as fervent a scholar and educator as he was an all-embracing rugby devotee, Dobson wrote several books on the sport, including one on Dr Danie Craven, the Springbok scrumhalf legend, Stellenbosch icon and longest-serving president of the former SARB between 1956 and 1993.
Dobson was a valued, discreet source of information to this writer at times in the mid-1980s whenever Craven’s leadership was threatened (several times) by more northern-based rugby bosses in the country with ties to the Broederbond, the secretive all-male organisation dedicated to Afrikaner interests and preserving the general political status quo of the time.
“There are vultures circling the Doc again,” Dobson would tell me with a sigh, “but he usually knows how to head them off”.
Dobson jnr, currently in his first, interrupted season as mastermind of the Stormers, told Sport24 his father had died after contracting Covid-19.
“Just a couple of weeks ago he was monitoring rugby as usual and writing enthusiastically about (New Zealand’s) Super Rugby Aotearoa.”
He said his father had not missed attending a single Test match at his beloved Newlands – which has almost certainly staged its last international – since 1949.
Asked to sum up the rugby-specific legacy he would leave him, Dobson jnr replied: “I can’t claim to have a fifth of my dad’s pure ethics and decency.
“He was obsessive about what he regarded as certain, absolutely sacrosanct aspects of rugby union … obviously including respect for referees.”
It would depress Dobson snr profoundly whenever officials copped abusive treatment from over-zealous spectators, particularly if they were fathers of schoolboy players.
Craig Marais, now an SABC journalist, was a rising, early-teenaged young star of both rugby and cricket when he arrived at Bishops, where Paul Dobson taught, in 1979: he would go on to earn the rare feat of SA Schools selection in each landscape.
“Paul was like a second father to me and his wife Margaret my second mother,” recalls Marais.
“I was this little Coloured kid arriving at this famous institution from a school in Athlone; quite a journey for me. They were confusing times indeed … but not because of ‘Mr Dobson’.
“I played under-14B rugby initially, until I got to under-15 where he was the coach: he put me in the A-team despite me being really small at the time; it was one of the reasons I cried when Cheslin Kolbe scored in the World Cup 2019 final.
“But I never looked back and would end up playing SA Schools and captaining the first XV. Paul was my English teacher, housemaster, and friend.
“I’ll also never forget this: when my father suddenly passed away 28 years ago, he was there to help me, a rock and pillar under trying circumstances; he organised the Bishops Chapel.
“Bishops meant more to my dad, who had a poor and humble upbringing, than it did to me.
“It was great to see Paul occasionally (in later life) … I had been a tearaway flank poacher and he always called me ‘skelmpie’!
“A giant has fallen; he touched peoples’ lives around the world.”
Current SA elite panel referee Stuart Berry would have found widespread approval for his mini-tribute on Twitter, in which he described Dobson as “SA’s refereeing Madiba … a special person who saw such good in everyone”.
Paul Dobson, who was born in Plumstead, Cape Town, in September 1935, leaves his wife Margaret, son John and daughters Anne and Clare, and five grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements are likely to be low-key and geared toward close family during the ongoing pandemic, with a wider celebration of his life to follow later.
Rest in peace, Paul … a veritable “Oom” of South African rugby if ever there was one.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing