GRANT BALL speaks to Lions coach John Mitchell on turning the team around, fears that he could poach players, and living in Johannesburg.
How did your move to the Lions come about?
Purely through [Lions director of rugby] Dick Muir [above], as he obviously has a heavy workload with the Springboks [as assistant coach] during the Currie Cup. I’m good mates with Dick and believe in him. He was aware that I’ll be coming out of contract with the Force next year, and I always wanted to be involved in the Currie Cup. I’m here to help the Lions regain their winning culture, and it was too good an offer to turn down. I also spoke to Plum [Sharks coach John Plumtree] and a few other mates in South Africa about the opportunity the move presents.
How will you juggle your job at the Lions with your commitments in Japan?
That’s not by my design or choice. I phoned David Hill to play for the Force because we were desperate when André Pretorius was injured and we needed an experienced flyhalf. The Force arranged the deal with Toshiba that in exchange for David playing I would coach there, but it will only happen in November once I’m finished with the Currie Cup.
The Lions conceded 72 tries in 13 Super 14 matches and didn’t have a permanent defence coach. Can that be rectified in the Currie Cup?
Firstly, you can’t compare the two competitions as many of the teams have different personnel for each one. I’ll have to take stock of the players to find out why they didn’t maximise their potential. That started with a programme I put them through in the first week of pre-competition training. We’ll have a clear philosophy on attack and defence, so those defensive problems will be easy to rectify.
Some say your appointment at the Lions was a knee-jerk reaction to a disappointing Super 14 and that it shows no planning from management’s perspective.
I haven’t even heard comments like that, so I don’t understand where they’re coming from. They don’t concern me. My job is to bring winning rugby to the union.
Is it a problem that the Lions won’t have continuity again in their coaching staff from the Currie Cup to Super Rugby?
Continuity is a critical factor. The players are the crucial group that defines performance, and Dick’s mandate to me is to maximise potential. Dick is also looking to improve player resources in the squad between the Currie Cup and Super Rugby. As director of rugby, Dick has a clear vision and strategy, and I’m aware of that.
Jake White, the Lions consulting coach in last year’s Currie Cup, and Muir have very different rugby philosophies. What’s your approach to the game?
I always try to maximise potential from each individual I work with and I have a clear vision of where we’re heading. I have a well-defined rugby strategy that I stick to and I expect everyone to buy into it, while they’re learning and enjoying their rugby.
What are your views on discipline?
Discipline is a huge component of rugby strategy. It is defined in a number of ways in a rugby context, such as sticking to the game plan. Discipline off the field is just as important, if not more so, than it is on it. It’s also about focusing on internal factors and not external ones. It really is an important part of coaching and player management.
The Lions have had five coaches in the past year-and-a-half [Loffie Eloff, White, Hans Coetzee, Muir and Mitchell]. Are the players getting confused with so many different ideas?
That lack of continuity in the coaching department is clearly unsettling for players. But Dick and I have a direction we want to go in and whatever’s gone before us is irrelevant. Dick’s influence will still come through heavily. We can learn from the union’s past experiences, but we should be healthy moving forward.
Are fears that you could scout Lions players and take them back to the Force for next season justified?
There’s an open market available, but it would be extremely unethical on my part if my primary focus was to try to take players back to Perth. I’ve been in the game a long time and I want to remain professional and be viewed as such. I won’t appreciate being judged on those claims.
The Lions don’t have one current Springbok in their squad. Do you think they have the players to compete?
Those are other people’s judgements. I’m just here to make sure each player plays to his full potential. I’m not concerned about what we don’t have or about players we’ve lost, what matters is the players I have at my disposal. I have to find out why they didn’t play well in the Super 14 and turn that around. In tough times like these, we have a very hungry group who are intent on coming through despite adversity, regardless of what others say about them.
How do you plan to use Carlos Spencer during the Currie Cup?
He’s categorised as a player-coach, and he’ll be looking after the backline. He’s also ready to play flyhalf if we need him.
How are you finding life in Johannesburg?
My past experiences of coming to Joburg for Super Rugby have been different to living here. When I came here with the Force it was more about going to one or two schools for training, then to Ellis Park for the match, and flying off again. Once I started living here it opened my eyes, and I’ve realised that Joburg has much more to offer. Arriving just before the soccer World Cup also added to the buzz of the city.
How will this experience of coaching in South Africa for the first time affect you as a person and a coach?
Coaching is never a finite job. If you fall into that mentality, you’re in for a shock. When I was at the Force starting a team from scratch, I didn’t get to do enough coaching. The best thing about coaching in the Currie Cup is that it’s a long competition, with a rich history and tradition. I’ll also be working with a rugby nation filled with talent and fantastic strength. I am very stimulated by the challenge.
What are your plans after your contract at the Force concludes next year? Is there a chance that you’ll return to South Africa?
Yes, there is a possibility that I could come back here. There are also opportunities back home in New Zealand, in England – where I’ve coached before – and in France. Before I make any plans, though, I first have to help with the succession planning with the Force, which is already under way.
– This article first appeared in the August issue of SA Rugby magazine.