Coaches Mzwakhe Nkosi and Phiwe Nomolomo share a strong bond that has benefitted the SA Schools squads, writes DYLAN JACK.
The decision to appoint Mzwakhe Nkosi and Phiwe Nomlomo as the respective coaches of the SA Schools and SA Schools A sides makes a lot of sense. They are two of the most experienced schools coaches on the scene, having worked at provincial level.
Nkosi is overseeing the Lions’ U19, U21 and Provincial Rugby Challenge set-ups as a defence specialist, while Nomlomo spent three years as head coach of the Eastern Province Academy, until 2017.
More importantly, however, the duo have great trust in each other, having forged a strong friendship since meeting at the Wildeklawer tournament in 2013. Nkosi was 1st XV assistant of KES and Nomlomo of Selborne.
‘At the time we were the only two black coaches at that level, which is crazy,’ says Nkosi. ‘Not that those stats have improved. Obviously, we were two young guys who migrated towards each other. We enjoy seeing each other and watching each other’s backs.’
‘Our friendship is full of banter,’ Nomlomo adds. ‘There is never a dull moment. That makes it so special; there is no filter whatsoever. It always comes from a good place. We know where we stand with each other. He knows I want him to do great things, just as I know he supports me wholeheartedly.’
Nomlomo says the fact he and Nkosi have such a strong trust aided the SA Schools sides in the international series against Argentina, France, England and Wales.
‘It does help to get people who understand what SA Rugby is looking for and it makes it a lot easier in that we are going to have to work with each other. If we get along well, when tough times come it is a lot easier to be honest with each other. I know it is coming from a good place. You need to understand that with sport, as with business, you need to work with people you can trust.’
Additionally, Nkosi and Nomlomo find themselves with an opportunity to change the situation around black coaches in the country.
An investigation by SA Rugby magazine in April found that of the six professional South African franchises in Super Rugby and the Pro14, only the Kings could meet SA Rugby’s 50% target for black coaches.
‘It is a great opportunity that Mzwakhe and I have,’ Nomlomo says. ‘I want to challenge myself to change the status quo. You change it by results.’
Nkosi is firm in his belief that there are black coaches who can succeed at a higher level, using former North West University coach Jonathan Mokuena and St Albans 1st XV coach Kennedy Tsimba as examples.
‘I think there is still a bit of distrust, but there are guys who are starting to come though. I look at someone like Jonathan and think, at some point he is due an opportunity. He has done amazing things at the Leopards with limited resources. Look at what Kennedy has done with St Albans. He has limited resources but always produces Craven Week players, year in, year out. There are black coaches with ability. It is a matter of providing those guys with an opportunity to get into a provincial pathway.’
Nkosi and Nomlomo come from relatively humble backgrounds.
Nkosi grew up in Diepkloof, in the sprawling township of Soweto.
‘I had a great childhood,’ he says. ‘The nice thing about being in the township is that everyone knows everyone. Everyone is a neighbour. Of course there are bad things that one can speak about but I really loved my time growing up.
‘When you grow up in a township, you don’t have fancy gadgets,’ Nkosi adds. ‘So the only thing you can do is play sport for the whole day. It is a massive thing. My parents encouraged me to do that. When I got to primary school, I played sport every single day. No matter what it was – cricket, athletics, rugby – I have been a sportsperson for as long as I can remember.’
Nkosi attended Robertsham Primary, where he started playing rugby at U9 level. He then attended KES, playing as a wing and fullback in the 1st XV, while also playing in the youth weeks for the Golden Lions.
Nomlomo, meanwhile, was raised in the town of Tsomo in the former Transkei.
‘It is free-spirited,’ he says of his home town, which he visits whenever he gets the chance.
‘We could play ball from when we woke up, especially when we didn’t have school, until late. It is almost like Cape Town in summer; the sun sets really late. There was no electricity, and it was beautiful. We didn’t have to rush home from school. We grew up with nothing, yes, but the beauty is that everyone had nothing. For us that was everything we needed.’
The youngest of five, Nomlomo says his older brother got him interested in sport.
‘He was a great soccer player. Being in Tsomo, there was no rugby and soccer was the way of life. I always tried to join his teams, if he allowed. I think I admired just being around him because of what he could do with a soccer ball. He was a magician.’
Nomlomo’s interest in rugby began when his family moved to Gonubie in Buffalo City. There he became friends with Ncedo ‘Chester’ Koyana, nicknamed after the former Springbok wing, Chester Williams. Nomlomo followed Koyana to Selborne College, where he played for their 1st XV and represented Border at the 2004 U18 Craven Week alongside the likes of Lwazi Mvovo and Rory Kockott.
After school, Nkosi began studying towards a BA in human movement sciences at the University of Johannesburg, while Nomlomo was picked up by the Sharks academy. The two realised their playing careers were not going to take off after neither earned professional contracts after their U21 years.
Nomlomo returned to Border, but was let go by coach David Dobela and retired from his playing career at 24.
‘I appreciated David’s honesty,’ Nomlomo says. ‘The whole experience taught me so much. He didn’t bulls**t. He went straight on and told me I was not the type of player he was looking for and they were not going to re-contract me. I became a lot wiser from the process. I don’t regret any decision that I have made and, as I later told David, it helped me become the man that I am today.’
The two have enjoyed a fast rise up the schoolboy coaching ladders. Nkosi took over from Carl Spilhaus as KES head coach in 2016, and has worked with the Lions U18 and SA Schools set-ups over the past four years.
Meanwhile, Nomlomo stepped in as Selborne head coach when Kevin Taylor left at the end of 2017 and was assistant coach when the Border U18 team went unbeaten at last year’s Craven Week. He took over as U18 head coach this year.
There have been lessons learned along the way, however. Nkosi describes himself as a ‘bull in a china shop’ when he started as a coach.
‘I think I am a whole lot more rounded now,’ he says. ‘I am more cognisant of players’ feelings and how they might experience me. In my earlier days, I tended to shoot from the hip with a lot of things.’
Nomlomo says he has become a lot more aware of allowing his schoolboys the freedom they needed to learn from their errors.
‘I realised that rugby players are people first, before anything else. So I treat them as people and get them to be professional people in the best way possible. You have to allow them to take ownership of what they do. You don’t always have to be looking over their shoulders.’
As for their future, the two have hinted that they are ready for the step up to professional rugby.
‘It is definitely an ambition,’ Nkosi says. ‘I am loving my time in junior professional rugby and schoolboy rugby at the moment. But if I am honest with myself, I would like to go full time into provincial rugby in the near future. Without a shadow of a doubt.’
‘I love coaching and love what I do,’ Nomlomo adds. ‘I love working with people, hence I am back at school. It has been a great opportunity to be back at Selborne. I look forward to the next chapter as soon as I am done with the U18s. This will be a new chapter in my life that I am really excited about.’
– This article first appeared in the September 2019 edition of SA Rugby magazine