Cape Town - Has pressure from senior players resulted in the Western Province Rugby Union (WPRU) making an abrupt about-turn regarding the appointment of John Mitchell as Stormers coach?
After the shock departure of Eddie Jones to coach England, Mitchell was seen as the clear favourite to become the next Stormers coach, with several media reports linking him with the job and suggesting it was a "done deal".
After the confirmation of Jones’ exit last month, WP’s Director of Rugby, Gert Smal, said he wanted a coach with vast experience.
“I am very much in favour of having a coach from overseas come in as when we appointed Eddie that was one of the big factors - we wanted a coach who would stimulate the environment by bringing new and different ideas, which is what I experienced when I worked at Ireland as an assistant coach,” said Smal.
“We would prefer an overseas coach for those reasons. The minimum requirements for the job would be that he has to have coached at Super Rugby level for seven seasons and also have coached at international level. We also want someone who has experience of coaching the style of rugby we envisage playing and which Eddie was working on introducing.”
Mitchell, a former All Blacks, Western Force and Golden Lions coach, ticks all of those boxes and was understandably a promising candidate.
However, Mitchell’s expected arrival in Cape Town may not be as clear-cut as it may have appeared as recently as last week.
Mitchell's departures at the Force and Lions were controversial to say the least, after the New Zealander had several reported run-ins with players who turned against him.
Mitchell is a no-nonsense sort of character, but has a history of rubbing up players the wrong way - something the Stormers players have no doubt taken note of.
While Mitchell's interview at Stormers HQ was said to have gone "well", speculation grew steadily that behind the scenes things weren't hunky-dory with the players as no appointment was made as the days ticked past.
Sport24 has it on good authority that several of the senior players in the Stormers camp are unhappy having Mitchell as their coach and this may sway the union to turn their back on him.
With next year’s Super Rugby tournament fast approaching, time is running out for the Stormers to find a new coach, and the possibility of WP Currie Cup coach John Dobson stepping into the Super Rugby seat appears an ever-increasing likely scenario, with Under-21 coach Robbie Fleck's name also mentioned.
Of course Smal himself, who is looking after the squad this month, could well be persuaded to fill a similar role to that of Sharks Director of Rugby Gary Gold, and coach the team full-time.
Dobson falls short in terms of Smal’s requirements for an "international coach with vast Super Rugby experience", but the former UCT mentor knows the union’s structures and has achieved success with WP's junior teams as well as leading the senior team to this year’s Currie Cup final.
Fleck was backline coach of the Stormers the last few years and this year led the Under-21 team to the provincial title.
One thing is clear: tough decisions await the Stormers top brass, but the sooner a head coach is named, the better for a franchise already reeling after Jones' unexpected departure.
The Stormers play their first Super Rugby match of the new season at Newlands against the Bulls on Saturday, February 27 - some 87 days from now...