Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, Bulls supremo JOHN MITCHELL talks about his love affair with SA rugby, what sets Kiwi teams apart from the chasing pack and backing home-based players.
Sport24 asked: How have you settled into your role as Bulls executive of rugby?
John Mitchell: I have lived and worked in South Africa for seven years now. It’s a country that gets into your soul and it’s a rugby-mad nation. It’s early days for me at the Bulls, but it’s been a busy time for me since I commenced work last month. I’m glad to be rolling up my sleeves and I’m playing an assistant coach role in the Currie Cup. The experience so far has been insightful and all the staff have been very helpful. By being hands-on, operationally it allows me to start building a foundation for Super Rugby. Over and above my team role, I have a high-level role and my responsibility is to build the club. It’s important to make sure that I have got an eye on both areas. Clarity and confidence are the two main aspects I’m trying to get everyone to focus on at the moment at the Bulls. Playing a good style of rugby and winning on a more consistent basis is important, but that really only comes through by changing the mindset and being clear and confident in your role. People can point fingers and be critical of many elements, but it’s amazing how you quickly you can turn an athlete around and create cohesion by focusing on the aforementioned principles. What I have found is that there is wonderful talent at this club and athletes with exceptional speed. The players play the game because they love it. It’s now about channelling their approach and mentality in a different way and creating clarity and confidence needed to play at this level.
Sport24 asked: Your report card on the Super Rugby final and Kiwi supremacy?
John Mitchell: There is an old saying that the trophy goes to the most deserving and at the end of the day, the Super Rugby title probably did go to the most deserving team. However, there was never going to be much between the Crusaders and Lions and, in the end, it came down to inches. You have to admire the Lions, who gave it a good shake with 14 men for 42 minutes of the match. Regardless of the outcome of the final last Saturday, it has been a wonderful story for all those who have been involved at the Lions. The Lions have come an incredibly long way on their journey and they just have to keep at it because their turn (to win the trophy) may come again. However, we cannot escape the fact that New Zealand franchises have won 15 Super Rugby titles since the competition’s inception in 1996. Clearly their tactical periodisation and skill integration is second to none. The Kiwis have been a step ahead of everyone and the way in which New Zealand teams prepare means that they never go backwards. The athlete is progressing year-on-year and they are stacking good stuff on good stuff. Before the athletes arrive at their Super Rugby sides, they have got already met standards below that and core skill, skill integration, training age and load are already three to five years in the making. And when the cream of the crop goes on to play for the All Blacks, they are able to raise the game speed even higher than in Super Rugby.
Sport24 asked: What have you made of Scott Robertson’s coaching evolution?
John Mitchell: It’s fantastic to see Scottie doing so well as a coach. He was a very confident player in his time and I was his All Black coach for a period. I actually had to make the very tough decision to leave him out of the All Blacks squad for the 2003 Rugby World Cup. He had sustained a knee injury and I felt his form had suffered as a result. It’s great to see that he has found a niche in coaching and he possesses outstanding qualities. Scottie has been successful at age-group level with the New Zealand team, which won the 2015 World Rugby under-20 Championship, has twice won the Mitre 10 Cup with Canterbury and claimed the Super Rugby title in his debut season as head coach of the Crusaders. Reuben Thorne has said: “It’s just a matter of when rather than if” Scott will one day become All Black coach. It would be a big call for Robinson to replace Steve Hansen when the latter calls it a day, but as long as Scott keeps getting better as coach, remains relevant and never stops learning, he can certainly present himself with a fantastic opportunity. In terms of the key qualities that define an effective All Black coach, it comes down to trusting yourself, having confidence in your methodologies and remaining relevant in terms of trends. Moreover, you must make sure that you empower your players, which is in accordance with the New Zealand system.
Sport24 asked: Your take on Johan Ackermann joining Gloucester for three years?
John Mitchell: People generally don’t like to see coaches leave their home countries, and I’m sure Lions supporters didn’t want Johan to go. However, you have to admire his decision to head to Gloucester and embrace a fresh challenge. I did five years of coaching in the UK when I was younger and it was probably one of the best things I ever did. It made me see the game differently and it opened up my mind that the game can be prepared and played in different ways. Ackers wants to get better as coach and evolve some skills that he otherwise wouldn’t get at home. There are most probably areas of his coaching that he wants to further develop in order to return to South Africa at some point and coach the Springboks with confidence. One thing you learn very quickly in the UK is that the game speed and the intent to play an expansive style of rugby takes a back seat. In northern hemisphere conditions, with inclement weather between December and March, you have to command field position and be able to exit with energy. I foresee Ackers adapting well to his new challenge because he has a great presence and the skills to mould cohesion in a team.
Sport24 asked: Do you agree with the Boks mostly picking domestic-based players?
John Mitchell: Yes. I’m a big believer in relying on the domestic players going into a Rugby Championship. At the end of the day, the home-based players are playing at a game speed in Super Rugby that is far superior to that of Britain or France, for argument’s sake. As much as some guys are very good rugby players and have great reputations, the reality is that the game speed in the northern hemisphere is slower. As a consequence, you often see that it takes the returning players around three or four weeks to adjust, which is often too late in a Rugby Championship. (Francois Hougaard, who plays for Worcester Warriors, was the only foreign-based player to be selected in the 34-man Springbok Rugby Championship squad).
Sport24 asked: How did you view Clive Woodward’s critique of the All Blacks?
John Mitchell: You have to be very careful with those kinds of comments. (Woodward suggested that the “genie is out of the bottle” with regards to the seemingly unbeatable All Blacks). It’s one thing to write the All Blacks off for a moment but, believe me, New Zealand has always demonstrated the ability to build depth. Bear in mind that the All Blacks will get better after drawing the three-Test series with the British and Irish Lions. The Lions slowed the All Blacks down and I didn’t really enjoy the attacking tactics of the All Blacks. It was the first time in a while that I saw them become a bit conservative and they were more gain-line focused. During the Test series, the All Blacks played into the hands of the Lions with their attacking structures, but I expect New Zealand to step up a gear in the Rugby Championship.
Sport24 asked: Is the growing player exodus to the north a cause for concern?
John Mitchell: I believe players heading abroad is inevitable in the modern professional era. (24-Test All Black Malakai Fekitoa became the latest player to head overseas having penned a two-year deal with Toulon). The fact of the matter is that unless you are a top-ranked All Black, most players will have to make that decision at some point. Even during the amateur era, the overseas experience was a very good one. It was always wonderful to get away and experience diverse cultures and different people. Going about things differently forces you to learn to adapt. For me, the great thing about playing abroad is that families are together for longer periods because the travel is far less demanding. As players get older and develop families, playing abroad is an ideal way to maintain your family unit and make good money.
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