John Mitchell’s personal growth in the last few years promises ultimately a greater success with his current franchise, the Bulls, than previous wrong-goings in his coaching career, writes Gavin Rich
The moment that created my most abiding memory from the Bulls’ good win over the Hurricanes came immediately after RG Snyman had forgotten that while he could run like an All Black centre, maybe he couldn’t pass like one. Instead of snarling or grimacing like he might have done a few years ago at a wasted opportunity, his coach John Mitchell broke out into a warm smile when the lock’s flashy little attempt at an inside flip went to ground.
Mitchell is the media flavour of the month locally, and rightly so, but just like it is with Eddie Jones, who suffered only his second defeat as England coach this past weekend, I always sense a little silent addendum hanging in the background to the enthusiasm. It goes something like this: “So far so good, but time will tell”.
For both these top coaches that is a reference to a history where there have been fall-outs with players they have coached and administrations they have worked for. It’s a fairly open secret that before Jones coached Japan to victory over the Springboks at the 2015 World Cup, thus securing his current job, the Japanese couldn’t wait to see the back of him.
Mitchell was responsible for the finest win percentage of any international coach who ended up getting sacked. He managed 86 percent with the All Blacks in his tenure between 2001 and 2003. Imagine a Bok coach achieving that sort of win percentage and then being shown the door. Mitch’s departure from the All Blacks was acrimonious and it was the same when he left the Western Force and the Lions.
All of those teams he had achieved success with initially and then it went pear-shaped, so who says it won’t happen again? It is true that time will tell, but I will bet my house on history not repeating itself this time.
There are two reasons for my optimism. The first is based on my knowledge of the efforts Mitchell put into his personal growth in his couple of years in the rugby wilderness. I co-wrote his book with him during that time so saw for myself the effects of the extensive time he spent with a life coach and the effort he put in to cure himself of whatever personality traits had contributed to the breakdown of previous working relationships.
But the main reason I am positive the Mitchell tenure with the Bulls will have a happy ending is because, having written his book, I know better than most the triggering factors that led to his problems at the Force and the Lions. And in both cases there were extenuating circumstances that need to be factored in, and let’s not forget either that every time he has engaged an employer in a court or arbitration battle, he has won.
At the Force everything went swimmingly for him while he was working with what he considered a competent chief executive. Then that chief executive fell foul of the board and had to resign, no-one was appointed to replace him, and Mitchell effectively became both coach and CEO. Unfortunately, this all coincided with the Force’s relationship with their biggest third-party sponsor going south, which meant the top players weren’t getting paid anything like what they had signed up for.
That wasn’t Mitchell’s fault but it impacted on him as it led to unhappiness and apathy among the playing group. Mitchell is a perfectionist who sets exacting standards and expects them to be met, but he was working with an unhappy squad and was having to fill in the void left by the absence of a CEO. It was a recipe for disaster no matter who the coach was.
And so onto the Lions, and almost exactly the same thing occurred. Mitchell’s team won the Currie Cup in 2011 but in 2012 the Lions started the Super Rugby season with the Sword of Damocles hanging over them due to SARU’s agreeing to guarantee the Southern Kings a place in the competition in 2013.
From an early stage of the season it was obvious that the Lions would make the drop out of Super Rugby, but although Mitchell repeatedly asked them to do so, the Lions officials and office bearers did not play open cards with the players and fill them in on what was going on.
Naturally with their employment for the following year being so uncertain, the Lions players struggled to focus on the task at hand. Mitchell is professional and demands professionalism from professional athletes, but he was dealing with players who had their minds on negotiating for their futures.
There was much more to it than that, and if you read the book, Mitch – The Real Story, you will get the full lowdown of what went wrong. Mitchell is honest in the book and takes it on the chin when it comes to the subjects where he was in the wrong, but most people who have read the book and engaged me in conversation have agreed that it was Mitchell who was wronged. Again, the arbitration findings back that view up.
My bottom line is that quite apart from his personal growth since 2012, I believe that if Mitchell is part of a system that works and is professionally run, and hopefully the Bulls should be better at it than the Lions were at running a professional rugby entity six years ago (they are better now), he will fly.
The Bulls won’t win Super Rugby this year as they are just starting out on their rebuilding, but my money says that in time Mitchell will seriously embarrass Western Province, who at the end of 2015 overruled their director of rugby Gert Smal’s recommendation to appoint Mitchell as Stormers coach because pressure had been applied on their president by the Lions.