John Mitchell could be earmarked for Rassie Erasmus’ future plans for the Springboks writes Gavin Rich for Business Day Newspaper
It may not happen in the next two years but those who have been waiting patiently for South African rugby bosses to see the light and appoint an overseas coach for the Springboks may not have long to wait.
Indeed, don’t bet your house against the prospect of the big icon series against the British and Irish Lions in 2021 providing the platform for an absorbing rematch between two of the most experienced brains in world rugby – Eddie Jones and John Mitchell.
Jones as coach of the Wallabies and Mitchell as coach of the All Blacks engaged in some intriguing battles back in the early part of the last decade. Mitchell got it over Jones in the build-up to the 2003 World Cup by introducing an attack system that caught the Australian off guard, with the All Blacks thumping the Wallabies by 50 points in a Tri-Nations fixture in Australia.
However, it has long been a regret for Mitchell that he showed his card so early. If he had his time again, he would keep the changes to the All Black strategy under wraps until the World Cup itself. For by the time the Kiwis and Aussies met in the World Cup semi-final, Jones had figured out Mitchell’s strategy. He out-thought Mitchell on the day, and it led to the defeat that cost Mitchell his job.
Mitchell has never hidden his respect for Jones’ brain but he would love a chance to pit himself against it again from the opposition dug-out. That opportunity may well come for Mitchell in 2021. While Rassie Erasmus will take charge of the Springboks until next year’s World Cup, it is unlikely that the broader responsibility envisaged by his national director of rugby role will allow him to continue beyond that.
It is understood that Erasmus will do a Kitch Christie style “ambulance job” on the Boks between now and the tournament in Japan, but he will be looking to bring in a head coach to work with him for the next four-year World Cup cycle. If Mitchell does what is expected of him at the Bulls over the next two Super Rugby seasons and proves he has outgrown the problems that hastened the end of his coaching stints at the Western Force and the Lions, Erasmus will not be averse to taking the astute and innovative Mitchell on as the next Bok coach.
Mitchell is not looking beyond his current commitment to the Bulls but he would not have gone back into top level coaching again were it not for the carrot of it possibly being a stepping stone back into international coaching. For a long time Mitchell wasn’t sure whether he’d be ready to coach the “old enemy” against the nation of his berth, but his several years living in Durban has turned him into a naturalised South African.
It would be naive to expect Mitchell’s Bulls to win Super Rugby this year. There is just too much rebuilding to be done. But already at the end of the last Currie Cup season the Bulls were showing strong signs of delivering reinvention rather than just talking about it. The Bulls played inventive rugby in their draw with the Stormers in a pre-season match in Wellington last week.
We have yet to see the Bulls field their strongest side and they enter the competition a week later than the other teams because they start with a bye, but my hunch is that this will be a year where the Bulls, because of the style of rugby they are likely to embrace, will make Bulls supporters out of people who’d never have dreamed they’d back the Pretoria team.
The Bulls’ progress under Mitchell, the innovation that their coach is likely to bring, plus Mitchell’s willingness to continue the personal growth that has made those who know him say he is a completely different person to the one who coached the Lions, is going to provide an intriguing extra narrative to a Super Rugby competition that could do with an injection of interest.
The last few seasons have been dead ones for the Bulls and if Mitchell can start changing that it will be good for South African rugby. Hopefully it will be a stepping stone towards him playing an even more important role in the Bok resurgence three years from now and start setting the stage for an intriguing battle of wits with his old rival.