The 15th week of 2016 could potentially be a seismic one in the history of Black African rugby in this country with Jonathan Mokuena leading Pukke to the Varsity Cup title and Mzwandile Stick being named a Springbok assistant coach.
While both former Springbok Sevens stars have quickly risen to coaching prominence, it is Mokuena who is perhaps accelerating even faster than former flyer Stick.
The 34-year-old Mokuena claimed the highly-competitive Varsity Cup title in his first year as a 15s coach and will now be guiding the Leopards in the Currie Cup as the doors slowly open for Black Africans at senior coaching level.
Speed and intensity will always be vital in rugby and, as a former Springbok Sevens captain, Mokuena’s coaching focuses on that.
“Coming from Sevens has been kind of an advantage because there’s a certain work ethic in Sevens. Coming to 15s, I try to train and operate at that same level, to introduce the same mental attitude. We train at a greater intensity and pace and under more pressure. In Sevens, because there are less guys on the field, one missed tackle can mean you lose the game,” Mokuena told The Saturday Citizen.
Mokuena was born in Cape Town in 1981 and received a bursary while at Prince George Primary to attend Voortrekker High School, an Afrikaans school.
“There was no soccer or volleyball, which I had been playing, at Voortrekker, I had to play cricket and rugby. It was just post-1994, so it was a bit uncomfortable, but I think having that challenge has allowed me to fit in well in small towns. I played my best rugby in Potchefstroom and Kimberley,” Mokuena said.
Having made his provincial debut for Western Province in 2002, Mokuena, a tough loose forward, relocated to Potchefstroom in 2004, playing 55 matches for the Leopards. From there he had stints with the Cheetahs and Griffons in the Free State, before joining Griquas, who he captained to the Vodacom Cup title in 2009, being named the player of the tournament.
He then joined the Lions, in the years before they were the slick, settled and reasonably happy outfit they are now.
“In my two years at the Lions, the coaching staff changed four times – from Jake White to Dick Muir to John Mitchell and then Johan Ackermann. So it was never consistent, which you need to fit in as a player. But I wanted to play SuperRugby. I wasn’t helped by a knee injury and then I missed a tour when my first child was born,” Mokuena recalls.
Before taking up coaching, Mokuena spent three years in the corporate world and, coupled with some bad experiences of how coaching should not be done at the Lions, it has helped shape his own coaching philosophy.
“You see what works in the corporate world and there are a lot of similarities with sport. You learn how to work better with people and how to manage people. Not everyone dances to the same music, you have got to discover what works in your set-up and figure out what sort of people your players are.
“A coach will impact more young people in a year than most people do in a lifetime, so it’s about those person-to-person relationships and creating an environment to grow people, a family environment,” Mokuena said.
The married father of three, who says his biggest playing highlight was winning the man of the match award for the Royal XV against the British and Irish Lions in 2009, says the future goal is the Springboks, but the now is his focus.
“The ultimate goal is to be Springbok coach, but at the moment I’m just focusing on getting the structures right for the Leopards, the Currie Cup is my immediate goal. The Varsity Cup has gone, we’ve ticked that box, and the Currie Cup is next, I want everyone to see we are going about things the right way here.
“The Black coaches have always been there, it’s just about opportunity. It’s slowly opening up but we don’t want to be appointed because of our colour,” Mokuena said.
The stately Varsity Cup trophy sitting in his office in Potchefstroom proves the waves Mokuena is making have nothing to do with window-dressing.