‘Mental strength pulled us through’
29 Oct 2011
John Mitchell says the emotional maturity his players have gained over the last 16 months was instrumental in their Currie Cup-winning run.
It’s been a fairytale story for the Lions and their Kiwi head coach. The famous 42-16 win over the Sharks in the final is a result that will be celebrated and remembered for a long time. But you have to look back to the start of Mitchell’s tenure to truly grasp this achievement.
Heading into the last year’s Currie Cup season, the Dick Muir-coached Lions had endured the worst Super Rugby campaign in the history of the competition as they lost all 13 games. It was the darkest stage of a 12-year period of disappointment. Their 2010 domestic season didn’t start off well either as they suffered a four-match losing streak. But there was an improvement in performance later in Mitchell’s debut campaign with the Johannesburg union, which included a five-match winning streak. The Lions didn’t qualify for the semi-finals but they were commended for a respectable finish.
There were more mixed results in this year’s Super Rugby season, but a triumphant run in the Currie Cup indicated that the structures set 16 months ago was finally came into effect. Mitchell credited the players’ for their growth as a team.
‘Just look back to those moments when we were given that yellow card and when the Sharks scored their try,’ Mitchell told keo.co.za. ‘When we were down to 14 men, we remained calm and the guys didn’t drop in their performance. The try shouldn’t have been awarded as it was a knock-on. A former Lions side would’ve folded at that stage, but this team didn’t. My team handled those incidents very well as we adapted to the situation.’
Being a foreigner, Mitchell was then asked if he knew how much this Currie Cup title meant to the people of Johannesburg.
He replied: ‘Probably not. But I know these past few weeks have been phenomenal for the city. The fact that we played in a packed Ellis Park shows how well the guys are playing, and the support has been massive.
‘When the news first broke that I was going to coach the Lions, all my friends asked me “what the hell are you thinking?’’. But I love a challenge and my dream was to restore the pride that was once here at Ellis Park.
‘I know it’s been a frustrating number of years for all Lions fans, who probably had to turn the telly upside down to see their team on top of the log. The results weren’t going the team’s way and that hurts because supporters have an emotional connection to their team. I’m very happy with what has been achieved over the last 16 months.’
So where to for the Lions from here? What will be needed for a stronger showing in Super Rugby?
‘We will want to perform better in Super Rugby, but there’s still a long process ahead for us,’ said Mitchell. ‘I think we can still improve our performance a notch. We are physically better than before and we won’t change our game plan next season, but we can be more accurate in our execution. There is also quality depth and we will have increase it heading into a hectic season next year. There are also other areas we can work on as we head into Super Rugby, but that we’ll focus on that at a later stage. We need to savour this moment and enjoy our break after a long season.’
By Gareth Duncan, in Johannesburg