The men who shaped the NWU’s Varsity Cup teams

Belinda Bantham -- Tue, 05/26/2020 - 12:37

The people who shaped the NWU’s Varsity Cup teams

A rugby fraternity is a band of like-minded brothers, a group of men and women who believe that no inch should be yielded in pursuit of winning the game. There are the custodians of the game, the administrators and the various specialists employed to ensure that this goal is reached.

However, none are more in the spotlight than the coaches, who know that their profession is akin to a revolving door. Coaches demand excellence, and supporters even more. Their work is judged by thousands and scrutinised by journalists, and their teams are public property. It is not an enviable position and that is one reserved for only the most hardened of characters.

During my many years in Potchefstroom and at the North-West University I have had the privilege to work in a journalistic capacity with many of the coaches at both the NWU and the Leopards – the twin pillars of this specific rugby fraternity. With no rugby currently on the radar, I thought it might be fun to look back at some of the NWU Rugby Institute coaches who have guided the team through the Varsity Cup since the beginning of my tenure.

Rudi Joubert: The former Springbok technical adviser and Bulls Super Rugby mentor was a high-profile signing, but his reign did not always deliver the required results. He could appear aloof at times, but once he got to know you, the real Rudi came to the fore. Two memories stand out: I once phoned Rudi the morning after a game and I could hear his attention was not with me. In fact, he was seriously distracted. “Bertie,” he fumed, “I’m going to phone you right back, I’m just going to sort out this *expletive* who parked behind me and I can’t move my bakkie!” As I said, fortune did not always favour him, but after a string of massive scores during the club championships he leaned over a cold beer and with a wry smile said: “Have you ever seen a side score this many tries?” I was young and still wet behind the ears, but he always gave me the time of day.

Hannes Esterhuizen: Annemie Bester, who now works as communication manager at the Lions Rugby Company, first described Hannes to me as a gentleman, and there is no better assessment of the man. He was mostly known for his work with the junior sides before taking over from Rudi mid-season. It was a tough task, but he was undeterred and the team played some stellar rugby. Hannes was always as concerned about his players’ academic results as about their performance on the field.

Robert du Preez: Robert, as the Durban media can attest during his time with the Sharks, was intensity personified. Contacting him after a loss was not the most enviable of tasks. The former Springbok scrumhalf was a hard man. A former mentor of Robert’s at the then PU for CHE once told me that if there had been red cards in Robert’s playing days he would never have been on the field.

Jonathan Mokuena: A cool customer, who was immensely popular with his players. Jonathan guided the NWU to its first-ever Varsity Cup title. The former Springbok Sevens star had a notoriously tumultuous relationship with former Lions coach, John Mitchell. Mitchell, who has coached teams such as the All Blacks and the Western Force, has been the source of many a mutiny in a team, and I can tell you this, there is no love lost between those two. Jonathan did not mince his words when talking about Mitchell. “That man ...,” he would say before going into the juicy details.

André Pretorius: André kicked the Springboks to victory against the All Blacks in Rustenburg and succeeded with four drop goals against England at Twickenham. You would never have guessed it judging by how he works with children in the local community. André is as down to earth as you are, and has an undiluted enthusiasm for the game of rugby. André may be far from the adoring crowds of Ellis Park, but he has found a home in Potchefstroom. Long may it remain so.

Each of these characters left an indelible mark on our game in North West and at the North-West University. To reflect on their respective bodies of work at the NWU is to glance back into time, to remember those failures and successes that shape a community. In their absence, I thank them.

By Bertie Jacobs