John Mitchell arrived in London to take up his new gig as the England defence coach last week to a ringing endorsement from another man lost to the South African rugby brain drain in former Lions coach Johan Ackermann write Gavin Rich for SuperSport Website
The former Springbok lock who is now head coach of club team Gloucester in the English premiership worked under Mitchell at the Lions at the beginning of his coaching career. So when he told the Gloucestershirelive website that Mitchell is a world class coach who is one of the best technical rugby men in the game, he was speaking from first hand experience.
“I think he is going to add a lot to England because he is a technical world class coach,” said Ackermann, who served as Mitchell’s assistant when the former All Black coach guided the Golden Lions to a drought breaking Currie Cup title in 2011.
“He’s in there to be defence coach but they can tap into other areas as well, he’s a good breakdown coach, he’s a good attacking coach and like I said, he is a very good with individual technical stuff.
“I think Eddie (Jones) was very clever (to recruit Mitchell) and hopefully he’s going to make a big difference for England.”
But this past Sunday, former England flyhalf Stuart Barnes, writing in the Sunday Times in London, questioned Mitchell’s CV with reference to the lack of major silverware. The day before Ackermann was describing Mitchell’s appointment as a shrewd move by England coach Jones, Western Province president Thelo Wakefield told a South African television programme that he had been vindicated for a decision he made in 2015. To refresh memories, Wakefield turned down his director of rugby Gert Smal’s recommendation when Mitchell was up for the Stormers job.
“After a year he goes away…and here we would sit with the repair work to do,” said Wakefield when interviewed on Supersport’s iPhaka magazine show.
So who is right, who is wrong, and what is the reality? Well, where Barnes might get it wrong when he looks at the Mitchell CV is that he fails to recognise that apart from when he was coaching the All Blacks, where he boasted an 86% record at a time when New Zealand weren’t yet the dominant team they were later to become, he was mostly in charge of teams that were developing. He was not in a position with those teams to look for the trophies that would give his CV extra gloss.
Western Force started from scratch when Mitchell took over and punched above their weight for a long time before they lost the CEO who had worked side by side with Mitchell from the inception of the franchise. Then they lost one of their biggest sponsors and players, through no fault of Mitchell’s, weren’t being paid what they were promised.
The Lions were in a parlous state when Mitchell came to Johannesburg in 2010. He did well to guide them to a drought breaking Currie Cup win a year later. Where it went foul for Mitchell after that was that he was in charge of a team that knew it was going to be denied Super Rugby competition in 2013 due to the promotion of the Southern Kings.
As for Wakefield, like many people he is speaking from a position of ignorance about why Mitchell left the Bulls and the time line and sequence of events that brought about his departure from his position as the Bulls’ director of rugby.
Mitchell has made a clean break with the Bulls and he and the union and company parted on good terms, with the break being regarded as amicable from both parties.
But this is definitely not a repeat of some of Mitchell’s controversial departures from some of the previous unions or franchises he has worked for. Far from there being a rift between Mitchell and the players, the coach had an excellent relationship with his players and Mitchell has grown a lot due to the life-coaching courses he has done since he left the Lions in acrimonious circumstances in 2012.
While there might be an erroneous perception that suddenly out of the blue an offer from England arrived on Mitchell’s desk and he accepted it, this is also far from the case. Mitchell was initially contracted until the end of the 2019 season but was offered a contract extension in February. That was before the first Super Rugby match of the season and before the epic win over the Hurricanes with which the Bulls kicked off the competition.
The offer, based on the impression that Mitchell had made on the Bulls officials up to then, would have tied Mitchell in to 2021. Initially he was eager to sign, but the signing of the extension to the contract was held up by bureaucratic process, and by the time June arrived the landscape had changed. The president who had presided over the appointment of Mitchell, Gert Wessels, had been replaced, pressure was being brought to bear on the CEO who had employed him, Barend van Graan, as well as the Bulls’ performance manager, Xander Janse van Rensburg.
Mitchell would have been wary of the uncertainty the elimination of Wessels and Van Graan would have created, as if you read his book, Mitch: The Real Story, you will note that he has been burned before by changes to what he refers to as “the upstairs”. The make-up of the board of directors also changed and the passion that had been shown for his vision was being met by less than full commitment. Perhaps because of all the change that had taken place in the hierarchy, the people Mitchell was working with were distracted, and there were urgent issues that needed addressing, such as the contracting of players who could win silverware for the Bulls and a contracting system that focused on preserving lifestyle rather than creating an environment for elite performance.
By the time it started to become apparent that nothing would be happening quickly, and the loss of the prodigiously promising prop Pierre Schoeman to an overseas club probably didn’t help matters, Mitchell would rightly have started to wonder if it was possible for him to deliver what his employers were expecting from him in extending his contract.
Mitchell, and again this will come up if you read his book, is not one of those coaches who would be satisfied with just drawing a wage and being comfortable coaching a team that finishes middle of the log and does just enough to keep him his job.
Perhaps that is where Wakefield is right – there is a perception among those who have been following or covering Western Province rugby for a long time that the officialdom in the region, meaning in particular the elected officials, are happy for their senior team to do just enough to ensure they keep their positions, rather than aim for winning the big trophy that really matters, meaning Super Rugby.
The Bulls of course have won Super Rugby three times, which might explain why for much of the past decade there has been less focus on the under-strength Currie Cup at the Pretoria union than there is in the Cape. But perhaps times are changing there too. There has been such a mass exodus of senior players since 2012 that a radical rebuild has become necessary, but are the Bulls aiming to climb back to the top of the tree in Super Rugby or are their officials and directors satisfied with taking the route of other local unions such as WP of just trying to be the best locally?
By the time the second half of June arrived these were questions that would have been weighing on Mitchell’s mind and probably played a role in him informing the Bulls at that point that he would not be signing the contract extension.
It is important to note that he had not heard from England at that point, there was no other offer on the table. The approach came much later, after Mitchell had resigned himself to parting ways with the Bulls at the end of 2019. As the Bulls would have to look for a new coach for after next October anyway, Mitchell would have felt it fair to all concerned to request an early release rather than him and the union marking time until his departure.
Mitchell is 54, he has done his time when coaching developing teams, he wants to coach at the elite level and coach for excellence, and it is important to note what he told the English media at a press conference this week – he believes England can win the World Cup. So the decision to leave would have made sense to him, but as Ackermann’s strong endorsement of Mitchell implies, he will be a massive gain for Jones and England and a loss to South Africa.
Wakefield refers to the need to back local timber when it comes to WP and Stormers coaches, but that is not the trend globally. A glance at the successful coaches in the the PRO14, French leagues and the English premiership will tell you that there are clear advantages to having what Smal, when three years ago he recruited Jones (not local timber, by the way), referred to as “a cross-pollination of ideas” in the coaching set-up
Jones probably sees that, and recruiting a man who has coached the All Blacks at a World Cup and who has experience of coaching at all the other top contending countries, and who now has a massive South African influence to go with his New Zealand upbringing and background, is a massive coup for him. He is effectively doing what Jake White did when he recruited Jones to be a Springbok assistant ahead of the 2007 World Cup.
Mitchell would be the first to admit that the Bulls didn’t travel quite as far as he wanted them to in his one Super Rugby season in charge, but anyone who watched the team play would have noted their seismic shift in direction and playing style. It was always going to take time to bring the plan to fruition as the players needed to get used to the tempo and needed to get their bodies attuned to sustaining it over a whole season, and there were injuries to contend with.
The improved skills of the individual Springboks that Mitchell worked with though will be his legacy. Forget the work Mitchell might do on the England defensive system, for Ackermann is right – he is there for more than that. If the England locks start showing off the sort of skills that RG Snyman displayed in Super Rugby you will know who is responsible.