Mitchell tackles the pressure

2011-07-09 00:00

THEY are the best of mates but John Mitchell must be deeply envious of fellow-New Zealander John Plumtree.

While Plumtree is settled in the stable, professional environment of the Sharks, and coaching in the balmy climes of Durban, Mitchell is attempting to transform Lions rugby in chilly Johannesburg and against a backdrop of chaotic administration.

While the Sharks have a healthy support base and excellent facilities at King’s Park, the Lions do not even know whether their home is in Johannesburg or Soweto.

Mitchell has been in Johannesburg a year — after relocating from Perth — and he has every reason to feel disillusioned.

Shortly after signing a three-year contract with the Lions last year, the 46-year-old former All Black coach was attacked, robbed and stabbed by two intruders in his own Johannesburg apartment. While the wounds to his arm and thigh were light, he was understandably traumatised by the ordeal, but he vowed to stay on as Lions coach rather than returning home.

Weeks later there were signs that the Lions would finally turn the corner. GumaTAC, led by business tycoon Robert Gumede, provided massive financial backing ahead of the Super Rugby competition and Mitchell could add genuine international talent to a young, enthusiastic but limited Super Rugby squad.

But the buying spree started too late for the 2011 season with most leading players throughout the world already contracted and many of Mitchell’s signings were rejects from other franchises.

There were the occasional encouraging moments, with a 30-30 draw with the Sharks at Ellis Park among them, but the Lions lacked the finish and experience to finish off promising starts and they ended down at 14th on the log.

But Mitchell’s planning for the future took a sudden nosedive last week when the Lions’ marriage with their BEE partners, Gumede and Ivor Ichikowitz, ended in tears and threats.

Gumede laid the blame for the messy divorce squarely at the door of the Lions’ “amateur administrators” who were delighted to accept his millions, but would not allow the investors to be involved in plotting the way forward.

“We wanted to buy into the future, not get stuck in the past. We had the support of the players and supporters, but no business person can be expected to invest a lot of money, especially in a struggling business, without having a say in the operational decision-making,” Gumede said.

One of the sticking points has been the proposed move from the Lions’ traditional home at Ellis Park to the superb FNB Stadium in Soweto.

Ironically, Gumede and his investors opposed the switch to Soweto, while the rugby administrators were in favour of the change.

Guma TAC said a move away from Ellis Park, a stadium

in which the Lions Rugby Union holds shares, would not make financial sense after the union had made radical improvements to the venue for last year’s Soccer World Cup.

Gumede also said that the Lions, after their disappointing Super Rugby season, also faced the very real threat of being booted out of the competition to accommodate the Port Elizabeth franchise, and they would be financially up a creek if they failed to draw crowds to their new and expensive home in the future.

“The only team guaranteed of a place in Super Rugby in 2013 are the Southern Kings,” he said.

“Saru have given the assurance [to government] that the Eastern Cape team will play in the competition from 2013. That means that one of the other five local teams [the Bulls, Cheetahs, Lions, Sharks and Stormers] may miss out.”

And now the politicians have also stepped into the ring with Sport Minister Fikile Mbalula requesting Saru to investigate the reasons that lead to the collapse of the high profile deal.

“When the deal was mooted and closed between Guma TAC and the GLRU [the Lions] we were thrill-ed with the prospect,” Mbalula said this week.

“The recent turn of events came as a shock and disappointment to us and so I have requested the South African Rugby Union to investigate the matter,” Mbalula added, saying that he is also willing to act as mediator.

It is in this unsettling atmosphere that Mitchell has to produce a successful Lions team, but the New Zealander remains resolute.

“Packing my bags and leaving is the last thing on my mind. We have to lead the organisation by focusing on our task — and that is rugby,” Mitchell said this week.

“We could also be part of the negativity. Or we can decide to focus on what is within out control, to win rugby games.”

“It’s a pity that that relationship [with the partner] was ended. We also need to remember that the agreement was drawn up in such a manner that it promoted the acquisition of players and the development of amateur rugby. And that is where I’d like to concentrate my efforts and see change,” he added.

The Lions have this year had a massive squad with some 90 players contracted. Many of them do not even attend training and Mitchell is now involved in a drastic culling operation before the Currie Cup.

“Only players who will be in contention for a Super Rugby place next year will be kept,” he said.

While the champion Sharks, the Blue Bulls and Western Province are certain to lose at least half their players to the Springboks for the rest of the season, the Lions will be able to field close to their Super Rugby outfit in the Currie Cup.

Whether they play in Soweto or at Ellis Park, Mitchell will at least have continuity among the playing staff and the Lions should make a strong impact on the Currie Cup. And that would be fitting reward for their resilient coach … if not for their bumbling administrators.

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