Going back to roots

2013-09-05 00:00

THE first-ever UKZN Head of Rugby, former All Black head coach John Mitchell, said in an exclusive interview with The Witness yesterday that returning to club rugby is a refreshing change.

Having held high-profile jobs in charge of the All Blacks, as England forwards coach, and Western Force and Golden Lions mentor, Mitchell is used to the pressure-cooker nature of top-level rugby and the challenge of club and Varsity Shield rugby takes him back to his roots.

“Club rugby has always been close to my heart,” said the man who only played for one club his whole career, Fraser Technical in Hamilton, New Zealand.

It also complements rather than clashes with his job as a SuperSport commentator and fits in with his lifestyle in Durban. He is married to a Durbanite. But that is not to say Mitchell will be taking it easy in his new position.

“With the help of the UKZN rugby committee I’m busy familiarising myself with the dynamics of student rugby and getting feedback from the incumbent coaches,” said the former All Black flank and captain. “It’s an opportunity to work with a club that wants to grow — and the challenge is similar to the situation I found myself in at the Western Force and Lions.”

“Mitch”, as he is universally known, emphasised how important he sees his new players’ academic progress. “I am looking for strong academic and rugby players. We want to attract and retain students without having to go out and pay for players. That is why much of the emphasis will be on our U20 group. I want to teach the boys how to become winners in rugby and in life.”

Mitchell wants to put in place a long-term, sustainable development plan that will include a close relationship with the Sharks. “Along with UKZN Rugby committee member Mark Schulze I met [Sharks CEO] John Smit and [commercial manager] Rudi Straeuli yesterday to discuss the way forward.

“There is a large annual intake at the Sharks Academy and not many are retained so there is opportunity for us there,” said Mitchell, who has signed a one-year contract with the option to renew.

A big focus will also be the coaching structure at UKZN while the UKZN Impi players will be going through a conditioning programme shortly and then a more focused preparation under the direction of their new head coach as well as training camps on the Pietermaritzburg and Durban campuses at the end of the year.

“I want to create excitement around our team on the Durban and PMB campuses and get all the students to embrace us, and that applies to the local communities as well as our quest to get into the Varsity Cup in the future.”

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