John Mitchell’s immediate impact at the Bulls is testament to the necessary step that South African rugby has taken in losing their xenophobic attitude towards hiring coaches, writes Gavin Rich for Business Day
You may have heard a strange clattering sound resonating around South Africa on Saturday evening. If you did, what you were probably hearing was the sound of the Jessie Kriel haters falling off their chairs.
Kriel’s apparent inability to pass properly and his occasional slumps when it came to other elementary tasks like simply catching the ball had me thinking that the Bulls player should be shifted to the wing. The one thing Kriel has always had is pace and the ability to finish, and he is not a small player either. South Africa has a dearth of size on the wings.
What wasn’t considered though by those of us who would either have Kriel move position or jettisoned out of the team altogether was John Mitchell’s ability to turn a raw athlete into a proper rugby player.
Kriel would have had even his most acerbic and sworn detractors reconsidering their opinion of him with the flashes of brilliance he displayed with his passing game in the Bulls’ fine win over the Hurricanes. It was the same with the Bulls team in general and the overall performance confirmed the impression given in a pre-season game against the Stormers in Wellington a few weeks ago – under Mitchell the Bulls are going to be both more skilled and much better conditioned.
Okay, it is true that getting excited about a team’s first performance in a long Super Rugby season is a bit like thinking you have your Comrades medal wrapped up after running just a few kilometres. But Saturday did show what a difference good coaching can make to a team. The Bulls were on a different planet to where they were this time last year, and it isn’t as if they have had an influx of star new players. It was the same story with England when Eddie Jones took over.
That there should be so much excitement over England’s loss to Scotland in the Six Nations was actually a tribute to what the former Wallaby mentor has achieved. Before he took charge, when England had been blown out of their own World Cup before the play-offs, a Scotland win at Murrayfield would not have registered on the scale that this one did.
But then if you’d asked any English fan at the end of 2015 if they’d be happy to buy a scenario where their team’s second defeat under Jones would come after 25 games, they’d have said “Yes please!” Neither should we lose sight of the fact that Scotland are a different animal, particularly at home, to what they were before a New Zealander, Vern Cotter, started to turn them around.
Gregor Townsend is now Scotland’s coach but it was Cotter who built the foundation for their resurgence as a rugby nation, as has the influence of Kiwi coaches in the Scotland club system. Some would argue too that there is still a lingering New Zealand influence at South Africa’s most successful and modernised (in terms of playing style) Super Rugby franchise of recent times, the Lions. It was Mitchell who guided Johan Ackermann through his first seasons of top level coaching, when Ackermann served as Mitchell’s assistant.
It is surely no coincidence that the improvement in the type of rugby we see played in the northern hemisphere, and we are referring here to the pure aesthetic value of it, has coincided with this period when there is such a strong Kiwi presence on the coaching staffs of both international and regional/club teams.
South Africa should start benefitting from Kiwi influence too, and not just because Mitchell, who travelled to New Zealand last year to update himself on the evolution in coaching methods in that country, is back in the local system. Rassie Erasmus will be in charge of the Springboks this year, and he is not afraid to admit he has learned a lot from Joe Schmidt, the New Zealander in charge of Ireland.
There was a time when a xenophobic attitude was rife in our rugby. When Harry Viljoen brought in Australians such as Les Kiss (very highly rated now) and Tim Lane to help him at the Boks, he was pilloried by some sections of the media. But what Gert Smal refers to as a cross-pollination of ideas, something he picked up during his own stint in Ireland, is crucial to the evolvement of the local game, so it is good for South African rugby that the staid attitudes of the past are now finally being eroded.
Also read Rich on SuperSport