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“FNB Varsity Cup prepares coaches for higher-level rugby”

Jonathan Mokuena took the life-changing opportunity to coach FNB NWU in the FNB Varsity Cup with both hands.

During his seven-year career as a professional rugby player, Mokuena represented the Leopards, Cheetahs, Griquas and Lions. The loose forward also played for a Royal XV against the British & Irish Lions when they last toured South Africa in 2009.

After hanging up his boots in 2012, Mokuena decided that with a young family to support, he needed to find a “real job” away from rugby.

“I went into the medical field as a sales rep, selling implants, like for hips and knees,” he tells “But during that three-year period, I got involved in coaching, first with the U14C team at St Stithians, and then with the UJ and Lions sevens teams.”

Mokuena admits “the rugby bug never stopped biting me”, so when he heard that FNB NWU coach Robert du Preez would be joining the Sharks, he decided to throw his name into the hat.

“When I walked out of the interview, I knew the job was mine,” he says. “I was blessed to get the opportunity and grateful that NWU took a chance on someone they wouldn’t normally.”

Mokuena achieved instant success with FNB NWU-Pukke (now known as the Eagles) as they won the FNB Varsity Cup for the first – and only – time in 2016.

“While that was a memorable year, all four years that I spent at NWU were special,” he says. “I think about our former captain, Tiaan Bezuidenhout, who passed away over the weekend … Working with young men like him, Chucky van der Westhuizen and Christwill September was a wonderful experience.”

In 2016, FNB NWU-Pukke finished third on the FNB Varsity Cup log – with five wins from seven matches – one point behind FNB UJ and three behind FNB Maties.

Pukke then beat FNB UJ 35-7 in their semi-final in Johannesburg, while FNB Maties thrashed FNB UP-Tuks 49-11 in Stellenbosch.

The final was held at the Danie Craven Stadium and to say that FNB NWU were underdogs would be a massive understatement. No one gave them a hope in hell.

However, outstanding defence from both teams saw the scores locked at 0-0 at half-time.

FNB Maties flyhalf Chris Smith kicked two second-half penalty goals but the visitors kept on coming and thought they had scored a try through replacement wing Dean Stokes in the corner with two minutes remaining. But the TMO ruled the ball had been knocked on.

There was plenty more drama to come. FNB NWU won a penalty from the resultant FNB Maties scrum, which was followed by several reset scrums and penalties.

During this period, the hosts copped two yellow cards, and Pukke took full advantage with flank Marno Redelinghuys forcing his way over from close range. Fullback Ryno Smith kicked the simple conversion and FNB NWU celebrated a famous win.

“Maties had thrashed us during the league stage of the tournament, so all the pressure was on them going into the final,” Mokuena recalls. “We knew we had to be clinical and take the try-scoring opportunities that came our way, and while we did miss a couple, we took that one at the end.”

The 39-year-old remains grateful for the platform given to him by the FNB Varsity Cup.

“I don’t think people would have known about my capabilities as a coach were it not for the Varsity Cup,” he says. “It gave me great confidence and I believe if I am put in charge of a professional team – Currie Currie, Super Rugby or higher – I know what it takes to be successful.

“The Varsity Cup puts you into that space when week in, week out you have to coach a team to win while dealing with the pressures of the job. It really prepares you for rugby at a higher level.”

– This is the ninth instalment in a series of FNB Varsity Cup Changing Lives articles focusing on those whose lives were forever changed by Rugby That Rocks.

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