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The stadiums and lush green fields of the Vodacom United Rugby Championship are worlds away from the halls of a school on a hill in Pretoria. The high intensity focus of professional rugby is in stark contrast with the youthful passion on a rugby field at Pretoria Boys High School. But the connection for Vodacom Bulls defence coach Joey Mongalo is still very real.

It’s a connection of opportunity.

And it’s one Mongalo understands better than most from his own journey growing up in a location outside Brits and losing his father at a young age and being raised by his mother, to a place on the senior coaching staff with South Africa’s leading rugby team forming part of a pioneering new competition in world rugby, and to now mentoring seven boys as part of a groundbreaking academic and sports sponsorship programme sponsored by Vodacom.

These boys have been given the opportunity to attend Pretoria Boys High School. They all come from underprivileged backgrounds and were originally identified for their rugby talent by Paul Anthony, the school’s Director of Rugby. But it’s their holistic development as young men that Vodacom, and indeed Mongalo, are most interested in. It’s for this reason that Vodacom has invested in tutors to assist the boys academically in subjects such as Maths and English.

“These boys are attending one of the best schools in South Africa, to develop not only as rugby players, but also academically and culturally. If they become provincial rugby players, then great. But it’s about more than that. It’s about them becoming good men in society. It’s about where they can be in 15 years from now. That’s the beautiful thing. That’s the opportunity,” says Mongalo, who has just graduated with a Masters in Industrial Psychology at the University of Pretoria.

His passion for this programme stems from the opportunity he was given as a young boy.

“I’ve reached the point I have in my own life purely because one man reached out to me when I was young and was prepared to back me and walk a road with me.”

That man was the headmaster of Thornhill Primary School in Brits – Marius van Heerden.

“He introduced me to rugby and cricket. I remember the first ball I bowled flew right over the net. But he saw something in me and backed me, and because of this I went on to play cricket for North West Under-11 and Under-13. I captained the school team and was deputy head boy. That opened the door for me to go to Pretoria Boys High and captain the first cricket team there and also play first team rugby, and then gain a bursary to study marketing at the University of Pretoria and play junior rugby for the Vodacom Bulls.”

It also helped to launch Mongalo’s coaching career. After coaching at the Emirates Lions for almost a decade where, amongst other honours, he won the Under-19 Currie Cup with the team, Mongalo returned to Loftus Versfeld in July 2020 as part of Jake White’s coaching staff and has since racked up the honours including two Carling Currie Cup titles and a Vodacom Super Rugby Unlocked triumph.

“The holistic nature of this programme with Vodacom and Pretoria Boys High is what excites me. The minute it’s based on one thing, like rugby, we neglect these boys and we end up producing someone who doesn’t self-actualise to their full potential. Sure, we see the rugby talent of these boys. But a 15-year-old needs academic progression because the future matters. That’s where a programme like this will deliver long-term fruit. Good programmes, the ones that really make a difference, produce a person who can exist outside the tag of rugby player. And if I can help as somebody who has walked this road, and by investing in them like somebody once invested in me, then the natural outpouring of that is that they do the same for others one day.

“This is a case study that it can be done. We’re in a country that’s hungry for leadership, and anybody or any company that can do what’s called upon them to do, and then have the capacity to help others is the kind of leadership we need.”

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