JOHANNESBURG - Born in a footballing family, Rhulani Mokwena’s allegiance with one of South Africa’s elite clubs, Orlando Pirates, runs deep.
His paternal lineage, which includes his grandfather, father and uncle, has a strong affiliation with the Soweto-based club.
The Sono trio embraced the famous black and white jersey of Pirates during their respective generations as players. Jomo Sono once left his bride, Gail, at the altar in 1979 to help the team overturn a 2-0 deficit as they beat Highlands Park 4-2.
Mokwena was not born then. However, in his teenage years, he also became a fully-fledged Buccaneer. But unlike his elders, Mokwena did not play at the highest level and fell in love with coaching at a young age. He cut his coaching teeth at the now defunct Silver Stars before landing at Mamelodi Sundowns.
Mokwena has often described his decision to branch off from his family’s spotlight and stand up for himself as “the road less travelled”. That road had its ups and downs. The ups saw him enjoy success at Sundowns during two different stints.
But the downs were at home – Orlando Stadium. For two-and-a-half years – two as an assistant coach to Milutin Sredojevic and six months as a caretaker – Mokwena failed to steer the Sea Robbers toward success.
He took that disappointment on the chin, and returned to Chloorkop to work with Pitso Mosimane again. When the latter resigned, Mokwena was elevated to co-coach alongside Manqoba Mngqithi late last year.
The duo, together with senior coach Steve Komphela, inspired the Brazilians to a record fourth PSL title and 11th overall. Egos and football philosophies were expected to clash, but the trio appeared to be managing just fine.
Last month, however, reports emerged of a rift among the “three wise men” after Mngqithi made comments regarding his absent co-worker at training.
Mokwena confirmed the allegations, but alluded that the former had since apologised upon his return.
Since the incident, there has been a spotlight on the coaching trio’s interaction on the bench, many noticing how Mokwena seems to be at the forefront: doing pre-match and post-match interviews – duties he shared with Mngqithi.
Some, moreover, reckon that Mokwena may also be calling the shots in the dressingroom – following images of him hopping down the tunnel before halftime to prepare for the team talk before the arrival of the players and the technical team.
Yesterday, Mngqithi might have previewed their next game against Pirates on Saturday, but Mokwena’s return to Orlando Stadium is something that cannot be ignored – based on his affiliation with the club and a somewhat forlorn figure on the bench recently.
Mokwena, though, has been professional to know that the team comes first. He was quick to credit some of his players after their win over Kaizer Chiefs at home. Referring to the recent reported rift, he said: “The elephant is out of the room. It’s old news. It was a big performance from the players.”
On the back of another win over TS Galaxy as they climbed to the top of the league standings, Sundowns will be eager to build on that momentum in Soweto, against Pirates who are also enjoying a purple patch.