Rugby coach who thrives in unfamiliar territory uses his lecturing experience as his secret weapon
word by leonard solms | photos michael maytham
In a 2019 jam-packed with South African rugby fairy tales, the appointment of Giyani-born Rito Hlungwani as Stormers forwards coach may have slipped under some radars. However, as black coaches continue to struggle for opportunities, its significance cannot be overlooked. The late Chester Williams’ wife, Maria Williams, has said that her husband struggled to find coaching opportunities in South Africa.
SA Rugby Union President Mark Alexander claimed in response that Williams “was given opportunities and he opted not to take them or he resigned”. Nevertheless, the discourse concerning opportunities for coaches of colour gained traction. Hlungwani is reluctant to discuss the broader picture regarding black coaches in South Africa on the record and understandably so. On every other topic, he is engaging and wears his heart on his sleeve. Over a WhatsApp video call from Australia, he tells DESTINY CAREERS that he has been working throughout his holiday. “I don’t think it can ever stop,” he says. “I’m constantly thinking what I can do better.
“I think we started [preparing for Super Rugby] two months ago and, for me, it was more about finding out about the coaching staff and how everyone works. Now, my break has afforded me more time to prepare and take the challenge head-on.”
Hlungwani’s life, both in and out of rugby, has been about constant self-improvement and throwing himself into unfamiliar environments. His love affair with the oval ball began in 1995, when four Chester Williams tries inspired the Springboks to a 42-14 win over Western Samoa in the quarter-finals of the World Cup. They also inspired Hlungwani to convince his father to send him to Capricorn High School in Polokwane so that he could play rugby. “I moved to Capricorn in 1996 and started playing rugby there for two years,” Hlungwani recalls. “Then, I changed schools again, because my father felt that I wasn’t concentrating much on my studies. I went back to a school where there was no rugby.”
This could have been the end of the road for Hlungwani, but he persevered, playing rugby again while studying at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT). Along with obtaining a Bachelor’s Degree in Quantity Surveying, he starred for Bellville Tech Rugby Club and captained CPUT at University Sports South Africa (USSA) tournaments. It was during this period that he earned his first big break as a player.
“At the end of 2003, I got selected [for Western Province] because the Vodacom Cup squad was made of club players at the time,” he says. “In 2004, I didn’t really cut the Vodacom Cup squad. I kind of went back to an amateur team — Western Province Amateur. “The following year, I made the Vodacom Cup squad when Nick Mallett came back to Cape Town. He was one of the coaches that selected me,” Hlungwani continues. “The following year, in 2006, I made the step-up to Currie Cup.”
Mallett’s coaching intelligence inspired Hlungwani to follow in his footsteps. After the lock’s playing career at Western Province ended in 2009, he transitioned from captain to coach at Villager FC while working as a professional quantity surveyor.
The Western Province Rugby Institute took Hlungwani on in January 2015 and he worked as an assistant coach for the U19 team, also taking up the same positions in Western Province’s U21 and SuperSport Challenge sides.
He also lectured part-time in 2019 to gain leadership skills. According to Hlungwani, his rugby coaching is reaping the benefits.
Hlungwani’s studious mind and work ethic caught the eye of current Stormers head coach John Dobson, who briefly coached him at the University of Cape Town. When Dobson replaced Robbie Fleck in the hotseat, he wasted no time bringing the former Western Province lock in as forwards coach.
Although he has yet to coach at Currie Cup level, let alone Super Rugby, Hlungwani has done enough to convince Dobson that he can get the Stormers’ star-studded forward pack onside with his methods.
“You know where he will win them over? He’s going to coach the World [Rugby] Player Of The Year. He’ll be the direct coach of Pieter-Steph [du Toit] when it comes to lineouts, contesting, and stuff like that,” Dobson tells DESTINY CAREERS of Hlungwani.
“He’s a quantity surveyor by trade, but he was showing us stuff with the lineouts that I’ve never seen before. “He’s going to win over those guys with his level of detail and his work ethic. I’ve got no doubt.” True to his straight-talking form, Dobson raises the lack of opportunities afforded to black coaches without needing to be asked.
“We need a more diverse Super Rugby head coaching group in South Africa,” Dobson says. “If you look at four white Super Rugby coaches, all the national teams and PRO14, you know what I mean?
Here’s a guy who’s definitely got the ability [to be a Super Rugby coach], so we’re definitely taking a longer-term view with Rito.”
Dobson views it as his job to help prepare the next generation of South African coaches. His technical team at the Stormers also includes scrum consultant Hanyani Shimange, who Dobson believes could one day lead a Super Rugby team.
As far as the technical team goes, the Stormers have ticked the boxes in terms of transformation. Dobson, however, seeks to think outside the box rather than merely tick it.
“We need to give Rito a proper opportunity to come through and develop. We probably hurried it now… But over three years, he’s going to be a spectacular coach. I’m really excited about the future with him,” he says.
“He’s certainly not a guy making up the numbers. He’s much better than that — a top coach.”