From under-9 Cs to a Super Rugby showdown: The remarkable coaching journey of Dave Wessels

Super Rugby
by Iain Payten

In arguably the biggest week of his still-young coaching career, the friendly name on Dave Wessels' phone popped up on Monday morning with perfect timing.

It was a few days after the Rebels had lost 66-0 to the Crusaders in Christchurch and a few days ahead of Wessels’ team doing battle at home with the Chiefs; a last-round shootout on Friday that will see the Rebels progress to the finals for the first time if they win.

And likely miss out if they lose.

So when ex-Springboks coach Jake White rang through - a mentor who helped launch Wessels’ unlikely coaching career - the call was soothing amid the “washing machine” of a hectic week. Did we mention they lost 66-0 last weekend?

“(He) said if someone had offered you in January a home game against the Chiefs to make the finals you would have accepted that," Wessels said on Wednesday.

"I'm obviously a coach who is still learning a lot and there's a couple of senior coaches like Jake who take a lot of trouble to communicate.

"They've been in the washing machine of it before and sometimes when you're down, you haven't got a lot of people phoning you so I'm very grateful."

Given the Rebels had a painful near-miss last season as well, the stress of a week like this would be intense on any head coach, let alone one in only his third year.

Wessels admits he’s learning as he goes, and while endeavouring to stay upright inside that washing machine, he is trying his level best to enjoy the ride too. With mixed success.

The 37-year-old can’t fall back on experiences as an elite player in a week like this because he wasn’t one.

As a youngster growing up in South Africa, Wessels’ playing days were as one of the “icebreakers” - so named because his lowly school team played so early they removed the frost from the field.

But with a deep love of the game and a deeper thirst for rugby knowledge, Wessels has still risen to an elite level of coaching. 

He started coaching the under-9Cs for beer money while at university, and his journey to now be in a do-or-die Super Rugby clash is a decidedly unique tale of “luck”, dedication, stubbornness and happenstantial support of men like White, Les Kiss and Rassie Erasmus.

With the nerve-bending pressure of a finals race still a little off in the distance last month, Wessels sat down with RUGBY.com.au to share his story.

MADIBA MAGIC

Wessels was born in 1982, in a deeply troubled South Africa. 

With apartheid still an active and globally-abhorred policy of the state, the first decade of Wessels' life was set against ever-present civil unrest.

Protests, police violence and bombings were weekly occurrences in major cities like Cape Town and Wessels’ home, Johannesburg.

"It was definitely a country teetering on the edge for a long time,” he said.

"It was very obvious to me that it was separated, yeah. I was lucky enough that my parents are pretty liberal and were at pains to point out it wasn’t right. It’s just crazy to think that segregration could happen in my lifetime.

"South Africa is a country with an enormous amount of challenges but it is also amazing to think all of that resolved itself without civil war. It resolved itself, in relative terms, peacefully.

"I remember very clearly when Mandela was released from prison and my mother calling me to the TV and telling me to watch it. That it was special.

"Rugby, and sport, had a huge role to play. Mandela used to say there are two languages the whole world speaks. One is music and the other is sport.

"The power of sport to unite people and bring people together couldn’t have been more evident than what happened in 1995.”

South Africa were isolated from world sport until 1991 and it was a sanction felt keenly in the Wessels’ household given his eldest brother was a world-class swimmer, who later missed an Olympic berth due to a broken leg.

South Africa's re-entry into the world via sport gave the country a reason to galvanise and re-establish pride, and when Mandela presented the Springboks with the Rugby World Cup - while wearing a Boks jersey - in 1995, it played a pivotal role in healing the nation, too.

That and South Africa winning the African Nations Cup football tournament in 1996, says Wessels.


"It gave us something to be positive about together, to celebrate together,” Wessels says.

"It was also a bit of us against the world, as a country we had something to take on and overcome.

"It brought people together and taught people the power of forgiving and getting on with it. 

"It’s hard to describe, I get emotional when I talk about it.

"If it weren’t for those things, the history of the country would be very different. Let’s put it that way.”

The 1995 World Cup win also saw a young boy still playing soccer begin a life-long love affair with rugby.

"I always enjoyed it but I wasn’t very good at it,” Wessels says. 

"I enjoyed being part of a team and that’s still the part I enjoy the most.”

DOT COM COACH 

Wessels’ love of rugby manifested itself, firstly, in a website.

Long before most rugby fan sites existed - let alone Facebook or YouTube - Wessels started  the SARugby.com website as a school project in 1999 and filled it up with news and pictures and profiles of the Springboks and Super Rugby.

“We got some our friends’ Dads to advertise on it to raise money for charity and that started it,” Wessels said.

"When I was at university that was what I used it for, aside from coaching, I earned a bit of money by running this little website and getting people to advertise on it."

Wessels and two friends ran SARugby.com in their apartment, and it would ultimately take the uni student to the 2007 Rugby World Cup as an accredited journalist, where he attended “80 per cent of the games” and the final, in which White’s Springboks beat England 15-6.

"We applied as SARugby.com and I think the IRB at the time thought we were South African rugby. In the final, we were sitting on the halfway line, perfect seats and it was world class,” Wessels recalls.

"Someone we were with knew Schalk Burger so at the end of the game we were in the team room with the Springboks as well. It shows what a small world rugby is.

"It was one of the most unbelievable experiences of my life.”

SARugby.com would later be bought and folded into the well-known Planet Rugby site.

And by 2007 Wessels had been coaching for several years but albeit via extremely humble beginnings, as a uni student.

"My first job in coaching was really just to earn money. I was coaching the under 9Cs at a school called Reddam House . It was like herding cats,” Wessels said.

"I went on to the under-11s and then under-13s and I was really enjoying it.”

INFLUENTIAL INTERVENTIONS

Coaching was just a hobby for Wessels until the day former Kangaroos winger Les Kiss turned up and changed everything.

"I still tell him about it. He started it all," Wessels says.

"Les was the Springboks defence coach at time and he came and did a presentation about defence at the school.

"Most of it was totally above my head but I just realised there was a lot more to this game, and I was captivated by it. 

Wessels wanted to coach at a more serious level, so he went to the head of rugby at local school Rondebosch Boys High and asked to learn. The eager student was paired with former Springboks hooker Shaun Povey.

"We coached under 16s for a year or two and then we coached the Firsts for a year or two,” Wessels said. 

"We actually coached against Bishops College, and Footey (now Melbourne assistant coach Kevin Foote) coached the Bishops team. I just really enjoyed it.”

Wessels progressed to coaching the University of Cape Town under-20s, and then received an invitation to join John Dobson in being a defensive coach in the Varsity Cup team in 2008; a popular and high-level competition in South Africa.

The team had some success - "better players make better coaches, that’s something I learned right away. I didn’t really know what I was doing" - and around the same time, Wessels had begun to pester Rassie Erasmus for work experience at the Stormers after meeting him at another coaching clinic.

"I remember asking him at the end of the presentation just saying: 'I have never heard anyone speak about rugby like that before and I want to learn from you. I will sit under your desk, you don’t have to pay me a cent, you won’t even know I am there. I just want to absorb everything you say’,” Wessels recalls

"He gave me his phone number, which I think he probably always regretted. I just hassled him and hassled him and eventually he said “ya, listen, come in for the Currie Cup”.  

"He was using me to look at some specific things in the game and I helped out on that, and then he asked me to stay on for Super Rugby after that.”

As an analyst, Wessels was suddenly providing information to Erasmus and a conference table with then-Stormers assistants like "Brendan Venter, Alistair Coetzee, Matt Proudfoot, Jacques Nienaber and Garry Gold."

"Again it was a huge amount of luck, to learn this flood of knowledge. I almost wish I could go back to it now with a better base of understanding, to be able to ask better questions,” Wessels said.

"It was luck, you know? A lot of young coaches want advice about what to do next and things like that but a lot of it is luck and timing.

"The biggest thing for me was just being present in what I was doing. I wasn’t trying to get a job or climb the ladder. I was just trying to learn everything I could in each job.

"I now try to pass that on to players, who may be worried about getting their next contract or whatever. A lot of that stuff works itself out if you’re present and you commit to what you’re doing right at this moment.”

SUCCESS, LUCK AND THE WHITE PATH

Though he often defaults to self-deprecation, Wessels’ insights as a defence analyst and coach were clearly valued, and both UCT Ikeys and the Stormers were winning.

The latter made the Super Rugby finals in 2009 and after Foote took over the head coach role at Ikeys in 2011, UCT - with a team containing Eben Etzebeth, Nizaam Carr, Marcel Brache and Demetri Catrakillis - won the prized Varsity Cup.

But it was a chance meeting with White that changed everything. Again.

Wessels still viewed coaching as something he did outside work and he was now head of new media at publishing house Touchline Media.

One day in 2011 White was in the office being interviewed by Sports Illustrated, one of the company's titles.

"I just happened to go to the toilet or getting a cup of tea or something, and he was there. We’d met before and we chatted a little bit. And we ended up talking for quite some time,” Wessels said

"And then it ended up me skipping work and driving out to his house a couple of times. He lived on a golf course just outside of Cape Town. I just spent time with him, talking about rugby. 

"At that time he didn’t know he was going to get the Brumbies job. And then he did.

“And I was lucky enough that he asked me to come over and do some consulting and coaching there.”

AUSTRALIA MOVE

Armed with a defensive system based on the teachings of Nienaber, Wessels arrived in Canberra in late 2011 as White began a revolution at the underperforming Brumbies.

In a short space of time the Brumbies improved immensely and the 2012 season built a platform for 2013, when they made the final.

The South African-isation of the Brumbies was clear and effective, but Wessels couldn't shake the feeling he was out of his depth and bringing "nothing" to the table.


“One of the reasons I didn’t stay with the Brumbies was I almost felt like a bit of a fraud there,” Wessels said.

"I had a system of defence that I probably learned from Jacques Nienaber. But I didn’t really, really understand it.

"Being with a guy like Laurie Fisher made me realise: 'nah, if I am going to do this seriously, I have to deeply understand this stuff'.

"We defended well that year but again, it was down to having good players.”

On the recommendation of Eddie Jones, however, Michael Foley reached out to Wessels and asked him to join his new coaching team at the Western Force in 2013. 

He accepted but again only stayed one season before moving back to South Africa, planning to resume life 'in a real job’.

Foley was persistent, though, and he convinced Wessels and wife Justine to take the plunge, migrate to Australia and make a decent go of coaching.

Foote was also on board at the Force, and the old Ikeys colleagues teamed up again to coach the Perth Spirit from 2014 onwards.

HEAD COACH

The Force became a very good defensive team and Wessels built a strong rapport with the playing group.

So much so that when Foley was removed as head coach mid-season in 2016, Wessels stepped up as interim and players backed his ticket to become the new head coach.

Even though he was still younger than a few of them.

Wessels interviewed well and won the job for 2017, but he wasn’t to know it would be an incredibly turbulent season, and ultimately the Force’s last.

Throughout all the uncertainty and upheaval, Wessels held a wounded Force squad together in his first season as a head coach, and almost conjured a finals appearance, too.

When the Force lost their Super Rugby spot, Wessels was courted to become coach of the Melbourne Rebels; where a dozen ex-Force players would also end up.

But Wessels' fast-growing reputation had attracted interest up north, too, and he was offered the Munster coaching job.

Wessels elected to stay in Australia (he is now a citizen) and signed on with Melbourne, along with Foote and other staff and players.

"One of the big reasons I stayed was I felt like I had some loyalty to the staff and other people who had been at the Force, and what they were going to be doing,” Wessels explains.

"I felt like some of the players I was starting to build a good relationship with. And we were at the edge of getting a good team together. That was a big part of it, and there were kids to think about and things.

"I also probably felt Australian rugby was at its lowest point then. I didn’t think the situation with the Force was well handled and so on, but I thought the only way is up. We have started to see green shoots on that already this year. 

"There is still a huge amount to do and every now and then you get knocked back with things that happen.

"There is stuff that makes the news about Australian rugby that’s not good, and we have to acknowledge that. But there is also a huge amount of good. Lots of people working hard behind the scenes and lots of positive stuff happening that maybe doesn’t get as well publicised. But its only a matter of time before that stuff starts to have an effect.”

COACHING SHOES 

Melbourne Rebels began strongly in 2018 before falling away and missing the finals - despite having a shot to make the finals in the last few games.

After reviewing their priority this season to be seeking consistent, week-by-week improvement as individuals and a team - and recruiting the house down - this year the Rebels started strongly before again falling away. 

Again they’ve had a shot in the last few games to nail down a final with a victory. And each time missed.

But there is one left shot left on Friday night.

It'd remove the fingernails of any coach.

Wessels concedes he can be highly-strung and those near him say he can sometimes focus so much of his energy on his players' well-being, he leaves none for his own.

Wessels says has been conscious this season to try and “enjoy the journey more”.

"I want to win and am disappointed when we don’t but at the same time I want to be motivated not by a fear of failure, but the joy of success,” he said.

Going head to head with the Chiefs for a spot in the Super Rugby finals is certainly a long way away from herding the under 9 cats at Reddam House, which as far coaching career timelines go, is still practically yesterday.

Wessels knows now he belongs at the elite level, but the unusual nature of his journey to his job - via websites, World Cups, work experience and lots of chance meetings - doesn't escape Wessels.

"There is still an element of surreal for me, even now,” Wessels says.

“And there should be for everyone in our industry, I think. It is a real privilege and I often say that to the players.

"It’s the old story about a guy who buys some shoes and goes to the park and steps in dogshit, and he gets upsets about ruining his shoes.

"Then another guy buys new shoes and steps in the dogshit, and he says: 'Thank God I was wearing shoes'.

"That’s the story of where we are. You can lose and you want to be as competitive as you can. And we are competitive, sometimes too competitive. 

"But you always to have to remind yourself, even when you are down about a loss or something, it is a real privilege to do what we’re doing. 

"You have to get up and go again. Have another crack."