Pukke coach Jonathan Mokuena wants his team to forget about last year’s Varsity Cup final defeat and focus on winning the tournament this year. DYLAN JACK reports.
The men from Potchefstroom suffered just one defeat last year in reaching the decider, which they lost 40-7 to Maties at the Danie Craven Stadium.
While there were lessons to be learned from that match, Mokuena says the team didn’t dwell on what they did wrong.
‘As a squad, we have not spoken about it,’ Mokuena tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘We as a management team sat down and looked at how we personally can develop and grow. If we try to do the same things that we did last year, we will probably get the same result this year.
‘My philosophy is that you can’t keep looking back at what you have done. We can’t change what happened last year. It is a new challenge, a new year and a fresh start.’
Despite losing experienced campaigners in Tapiwa Mafura and 2018 Varsity Cup Player of the Tournament Walt Steenkamp, Mokuena is confident a new breed of youngsters can fill the gap.
‘Experience is always vital and brings a lot of confidence. At the same time, as a coach I always want to keep guys coming through. At some stage you need to realise that players can’t always just play Varsity Cup, they need to go to the next level and challenge themselves.
‘For the past two years, we have worked on getting players involved from the Young Guns [U20] or at least exposing them to our systems in the off season. Hopefully this year, the players we have brought through over the past two years will benefit from having been with us.’
Pukke have a new captain, hooker Louis ‘Chucky’ van der Westhuizen, who replaces Tiaan Bezuidenhout. The 23-year-old hooker is a Namibia international, having played alongside the likes of Jacques Burger at the 2015 World Cup.
‘For me, it is massive,’ Van der Westhuizen says about the role. ‘It is not only leading the team, but leading part of the university. I have got big shoes to fill, looking at the previous captains, and it is a huge privilege for me.
‘I was in the leadership group last year too, and was able to see how guys like Tiaan managed the game and the team. Playing with Jacques at the World Cup was massive for me. I can only use that experience to my advantage.’
After conceding just 21 tries in the league stage last year, the fewest in the tournament, Van der Westhuizen believes the team will take a lot of confidence from their defensive ability.
‘We live for that. If there is a big hit, the guys cheer each other on. That brings the energy and brings us together. Last year we were really good on defence, and we have to take that into this year’s campaign. We must make more double hits and big hits. We have to step it up even more.’
Mokuena says his challenge this year will be to ‘keep the boys hungry’. He hopes to go into their fourth game of the campaign against Maties in Stellenbosch having built up some confidence.
‘If we do, then I am sure we can win that match,’ he adds.
Van der Westhuizen says if Pukke are to take that extra step and claim the title, they will have to undergo a mindshift.
‘The problem last year was that we had a really good semi-final win at home [against UJ, 60-31], so the guys may have been a bit easy about everything going into the final.
‘The moment was just too big for us. When Maties scored after half-time, the guys thought the game was done. It will be important for us to realise that no two games are the same. You can never underestimate the opposition.’