The Hurricanes are in Pretoria this weekend but whereas a year ago there would be been trepidation from Bulls and South African fans, there is a sense of anticipation and a genuine belief that the Bulls, at home, could surprise one of the tournament favourites.
The optimism is because of John Mitchell’s arrival at the Bulls. Mitchell is no Messiah and no miracle worker, because no coach is. But he is a damn fine coach, having been at the helm of the All Blacks, the Western Force and the Lions. He was also Clive Woodward’s England forward coach.
Mitchell, a legend in Waikato, is the ideal fit for the Bulls. He is about rugby culture and tradition. If he wasn’t a Kiwi he would be a South African. In many regards, given he has lived in South Africa for much of the last 10 years, he views himself as much South African these days as Kiwi, and that’s a great thing for South African rugby.
Rassie Erasmus will double up in his role as national director of rugby and Springbok coach until the end of the 2019 Rugby World Cup. He will then make the decision, in consultation with SARU’s leadership, about the practicality of doubling up as an expansion on the job description or advise on a Springbok coach from 2020.
This coach would report into Erasmus on all matters rugby related.
Erasmus, since his return to South Africa in November 2017, spends two days every week at each of the four Super Rugby franchises and is in ongoing communication with the two PRO14 franchises.
Erasmus has made himself and his national coaching team (that includes scrum specialist Pieter de Villiers and defence specialist Jacques Nienaber) available to the regions as per request or necessity.
De Villiers is with the Stormers on their overseas tour and it also allows him to get a first hand look at the Crusaders pack, many of whom will be part of the All Blacks. Erasmus and Nienaber are in Pretoria this weekend and incorporated into the Bulls match-day schedule.
There is no interference but a first hand, close as you can get, observation from the national coaching staff. It doesn’t get more efficient than the national set-up aligned with the regional realities.
The working relationship is strong.
Erasmus, from the outset, has said the success of South African rugby lies in the success of the Super Rugby franchises. If they are strong and collectively powerful, then by extension the Springboks should be a world force.
And it is for this reason that he interacts operationally and consistently with the head coaches. There is enormous respect from Erasmus, with regard to the role of the franchise coach. He has been there and says no coach wants to be told what to do and that national coming first isn’t to be interpreted as the Springboks’ needs seen in isolation.
Erasmus’s close working relationship with the four Super Rugby coaches means that they by extension become his advisory board, they become his co-selectors and they become his deputies when it comes to everything South African rugby.
It may seem an obvious connect but rarely has it worked in South African rugby because of egos, agendas and a disconnect between the national coaching staff and the respective regional coaches.
Erasmus is the exception to what has been before because he works full-time at SA Rugby and is not on flexi -time and operationally active only in the international season.
Erasmus, like Mitchell, doesn’t profess to be a Messiah or a Saviour, but they are passionate, articulate, intelligent, analytically smart, disciplined and have a work ethic in which they are engrossed by rugby. It’s a way of living for them; not a gig, part-time or full-time.
The quality of a coach makes a difference. Australian cricket superstar Shane Warne used to say in his sport the only coach that mattered was the one that took the players to the ground. He was referring to the bus.
Warne said in cricket the captain was more the coach than any bloke sitting up in the player’s suite.
In rugby it’s very different. The coach is very much the one in charge and history time and again shows how different coaches get so much more out of the same players.
Mitchell is cut from that cloth, Erasmus is also and Eddie Jones, as another example, is in the same category as coaches who live and breathe the game.
SuperSport’s Gavin Rich wrote that a Springbok versus British and Irish Lions series in 2021 with Eddie Jones on one side and the combined intellectual capital of Erasmus (as director of rugby) and Mitchell (as head coach) is as appetising a showdown as the game can produce.
Mitchell’s Bulls may not necessarily get the win against the Hurricanes and it may take him a season to remind the world that the Bulls traditionally have been one of South Africa’s powerhouse teams and have three Super Rugby titles.
But the Bulls will be a different animal with Mitchell in charge; more imposing and certainly more dangerous.
Mitchell, like Erasmus and Jones, is a winner and the Bulls made the most decisive decision in ditching Nollis Marais for Mitchell. Marais was simply out of his depth.
Erasmus, has in the last 15 years, done his coaching apprenticeship. He was brilliant Springbok loose-forward who was forced to retire at 29 because of injury. He has been coaching professionally for longer than he played the game professionally - and he played professional rugby from nearly a decade.
An Erasmus/Mitchell future combination has massive potential.
Mitchell’s playing and coaching CV is among the most sought after in world rugby. The Stormers had the chance to employ Mitchell but because of leadership insecurities and agendas there was resistance to give Mitchell the director of rugby role.
The Bulls didn’t fall foul to such pettiness and small-minded thinking.
Mitchell has made an impression and just a week ago I got a message from the iconic Bulls and Springbok forward Bakkies Botha to say things are changing at the Bulls (for the better) and to watch the space.
Botha had been vocal in the last two years in his criticism of the decline of the Bulls. He was fed up and angry at the embarrassment the Bulls had become.
In 2018 the big man has a spring in his step about his beloved Bulls and when he tells me to what this space, I certainly am not going to argue with him.
So, when it comes to the Bulls, this weekend and this season, watch this space...
Mark Keohane is a Cape-Town based award-winning rugby specialist and former Springbok Communications Manager. Follow him on Twitter
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