Johannesburg - As we sit in Christchurch on the eve of the Bulls’ Super Rugby clash against the Crusaders, coach John Mitchell is looking at a big chocolate birthday cake. But the real birthday present for the big Kiwi is the one he’s still busy unwrapping as he rebuilds his Bulls team.
Since arriving at Loftus Versfeld, Mitchell has attacked the problem of a struggling Bulls franchise with his usual rugby intellectualism and enthusiasm, and he’s loving every minute of the challenge.
“It’s been fun and rewarding because the players are open to learning and you can see it in their style of play,” he said.
“We’ll always be judged on results, but I go a layer deeper than that and look at the growth. I know where we want to get to and the players know as well. The important thing is for me as the leader to not get frustrated with the players and be patient, and eventually we’ll get there.”
At the moment, “there” involves Mitchell’s strategy of raising not only the pace at which this Bulls team play the game, but also empowering the players to be able to make decisions on the field that match this speed.
In the middle of all this is the job of keeping a balance between structure and allowing his players some freedom, while at the same time getting the one thing coaches are ultimately judged upon – results.
“The balance is key. In business and sport, everyone’s chasing a quick timeline, but you just don’t know when it’s going to click. But I really believe this team will be a very different team from what it is now and what it will be at the end of the season.
“So we are just taking it one week at a time and looking to improve, and I believe there will come a time when we will be the most deserving team in this competition. But, at the moment, we’ve got to learn and earn that as well. It’s not only going to have to come from our heads, but from our hearts as well.”
His players have certainly responded to Mitchell’s vision.
Jesse Kriel said: “There were a couple of changes that came with John, and the players really embraced this. He has brought a new energy to the team. We’re still a young team and the guys are really showing the excitement on the field. A lot of young players are getting the opportunity to play. We think it’s the right time for us at the moment.”
Kriel said the first-half performance against the Chiefs last week was a major step forward for the team.
“We all know we can play the type of rugby we played in that first half against the Chiefs. It’s just a case of going out there, sticking to our processes and putting it together for a full 80 minutes.”
For flyhalf Handré Pollard, there is no doubt in his mind about the potential of this Bulls team.
“We know we’ve got the X factor and the talent in this team. Everything’s in place for us. We’ve just got to give a full 80-minute performance and that’s our focus now.”
The Loftus faithful are just as eager to start seeing results. A group of them toured with the Bulls to Christchurch for the match against the Crusaders as part of a unique Vodacom Red Tour, which rewards the most loyal of these fans with exclusive access to the team in the build-up to the match. And Mitchell believes it was another important step in getting the collective buy-in of his vision for this team.
“It’s always special to give people insight into what you do. If people can come inside the inner sanctum and witness the final stages before kick-off, see what we do and then receive a jersey that is a replica of what the players will run out in; it just opens up a new world for them as fans.”
A New Zealander by birth, Mitchell has made South Africa his home. As he tucks into a piece of chocolate cake, Mitchell is asked what he thinks about the future of South Africa, and the coach in him responds.
“I think a leadership change was important. It’s given people hope. I love South Africa. Yes, it can be risky at times, but where there is risk, there is opportunity.”
Much like coaching a team.