Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, former All Blacks and current USA Eagles head coach JOHN MITCHELL talks about the state of Springbok rugby, what factors contribute to the All Blacks’ dominance and previews Bledisloe 3 in Auckland on Saturday.
Sport24 asked: Since signing a four-year contract with the Eagles in January, how would you describe the journey?
John Mitchell: Having been at the coaching helm of USA Rugby for nine months now, I have been able to assess the whole elite and participational rugby landscape in the country. The plan is very clear in terms of the team, everything is geared towards how we want to play the game and we are slowly but surely heading in the right direction. The biggest challenge for us revolves around not being able to control the selection and strength and conditioning for the entire calendar year, because at every squad assembly thus far there has been a different group of players and we have had to mix and match based on availability. This is not ideal for continuity into the same people and is a product of our current system. It’s only the contracted sevens personnel who really exist in a controlled environment. As such, the players from the 15-man game come from varying strength and conditioning levels that are also different in terms of approach. Another challenge has been the availability of overseas-based players. Even inside the Test window, you have the more powerful clubs trying to take an advantage of them in the summer and the fall when regulation 9 permits them to us, as world rugby looks to protect its Test window. I understand their rationale because they invested in the USA players initially to replace their Six Nations call-ups and to use them in the Anglo-Welsh fixtures. However, the calendar year has evolved now for North and South America, as we are involved in our own serious American Rugby Championship at that time of the year. However, what they have to understand is that it’s our time when performance and scoreboard determine our world rugby ranking. Looking ahead to our encounter against the Maori All Blacks early next month due to it falling outside of the regulation 9 window we will be selecting from our best domestic-based players. The match presents them, both individually and collectively, an opportunity to rival one of the best non-Test teams in the world. I respect the Maori’s place in the game. They are a high performance team and have always been a strong part of the New Zealand rugby family. They’ve produced some outstanding players and victories over the years, and are building up to tackle the British and Irish Lions in 2017.
Sport24 asked: What’s your view on SA Rugby’s decision to host a coaching indaba and the state of the Springboks?
John Mitchell: Make no mistake, it’s important to collaborate. However, my concern for SA Rugby is that the collaboration at the national coaching indaba hosted in Cape Town this week came exclusively from within. The questions are: Where is the innovation and evidence going to come from in order to be able to change mindsets and identify a new model that is going to work? And who is going to be the leader of that initiative and where is the accountability going to stem from? In the first meeting, it would have been difficult to summarise what is the right direction to go in. However, I would have thought that once they have a template and it becomes clearer, it may also require an independent view in order be innovative and to step up their current model. In terms of the Springboks’ recent on-field performances, their defensive organisation was clearly a problem against the All Blacks - they conceded 15 tries over two matches - and to be fair, has been an issue all year. The Springbok defence is clearly collectively passive and part of the problem lies is the way in which they train. The strength and conditioning component informs us that the players are at all varying levels, with some players from Super Rugby and others from different clubs and they are playing catch-up in the first two weeks of a squad assembly to even get anywhere near the metrics the All Blacks are training at. Defence, in my view, has to feed your attack and if you are not gaining any turn-overs out of your defence, your ability to attack through turn-over ball dries up. Moreover, most of the Springbok players are run and carry threats, but very few, certainly among the forwards, are passing threats. And in Allister Coetzee’s backline, there are very few players that are attacking kicking threats. Individually, South Africa’s game is two-dimensional and that is where they will need to change their mindset. A ball-in-hand approach, which the Lions have become renowned for, is definitely a realistic expectation at Test match level, but the key concept to remember is that it’s not from all parts of the field. Your exit strategies still need to be clinical and it requires policy, the ability to transfer pressure onto the opposition, and territory is probably more of a friend to you than possession in that specific area.
Sport24 asked: The All Blacks are on the cusp of rewriting the record books. What factors have led to their success?
John Mitchell: Firstly, the All Blacks are centralised in terms of their strength and conditioning model and their integration of skills is far superior to any other team in the world. It’s very difficult to compare generations because teams are resourced differently and the game has evolved. However, the current All Blacks team is an extraordinary example of a professional rugby union side. The All Blacks boast a working periodisation system that is superior to any other country in the world. And the beauty of New Zealand’s centralised model is that one person is leading and managing the strength and conditioning component for the whole year. Whereas, other models are trying to play catch-up and the truth is that it often becomes hit and miss. Playing catch-up doesn’t necessarily allow you to improve. Another contributing factor to the All Blacks’ continued success is the motivation of pulling on the famous black jersey and not wanting to let your team-mates and predecessors down. The players’ mentalities and habits are built within that framework. They are extremely self-reliant in terms of their physical and technical plans and their collective purpose as a team is clear. Meanwhile, Steve Hansen is phenomenal and he has done a great job. He has clearly grown as a coach and has come up with an effective approach and style and is leading an environment that is bearing fruits. Everyone can say that it’s the All Blacks and they benefit because they have a centralised model. While true, Hansen still has to ensure that all the staff and players are aligned and heading in one direction. He has to constantly challenge them in a healthy way and continually produce robust athletes that can turn up each week and perform to their full potential. What we have to admire about (Steve) Hansen is that he is managing all aspects of the programme extraordinarily well and adjusting volumes depending on travel and player workload.
Sport24 asked: What have you made of the Aaron Smith saga and how it’s been handled by the relevant parties?
John Mitchell: I believe the New Zealand Rugby Union and the All Blacks need to be commended for the way in which they dealt with the matter. It clearly wasn’t a great decision by Smith, but you also have to question the motives of the people that chose to spray around the information. People make mistakes, so Smith is not a bad person as a result of his immature decision. Rugby to me is very much like life and it’s about having the ability to be patient, persevere and deal with both the good times and bad times. The situation clearly allows Smith to look in the mirror and it provides him with a fantastic opportunity to grow from this difficult period in his private and professional life. Rugby is a great game and has certainly turned around many men. While it was a stupid decision from Smith, he shouldn’t continue to be castigated by the media.
Sport24 asked: What could ultimately trip up the All Blacks and which side appears most capable of beating them?
John Mitchell: I quite like Hansen’s recent comments when he said: “We do have flaws, but every team has flaws. The key thing is recognising you have them and making sure you work away quietly and fix them.” What will undo the All Blacks one day will probably be complacency and something in the weekly periodisation that they don’t get right. However, they are adding to their already superior metrics in terms of delivery and are saying to the rest of the rugby world: “Well, here’s the benchmark, somebody else come with.” And there is no doubt that at some point another team will, because at every World Cup the gap closes once you reach the knock-out stages. Who will come closest to challenging the All Blacks? At this moment, most people are suggesting England. I’ve been impressed with England under Eddie Jones, but to be fair they have only played in the Six Nations and against Australia over a three-Test series. England and New Zealand don’t meet for another year therefore both programmes are going to move on in that time. The fundamentals the All Blacks focus on are far superior, but you don’t have to play the way they do in order to beat them. You have to create tactics that win out on the day. How you use your threats is up to you, but being one or two-dimensional is certainly not going to defeat the All Blacks. Three-dimensional play is characterised by run, pass, carry and run, pass, kick. And, at that high level, you also have to be defensively efficient. You must boast all those skills and be on top of your game to have a chance of beating the All Blacks.
Sport24 asked: What is your outlook ahead of the final Bledisloe Cup clash between New Zealand and Australia?
John Mitchell: Australia always have to be respected because they have turned the All Blacks over on some big occasions. A positive for the Wallabies is that they have nothing to fear and because they are the outright underdogs they can throw everything at the game and give it their best shot - in those circumstances they are a dangerous animal. However, history tells us that Eden Park has been a bit of a graveyard for visiting teams since 1994. There is too much at stake for the All Blacks and they have come this far – the All Blacks are one scalp away from attaining the most consecutive Test wins by a tier-one nation - and I can’t see them losing. The expectation of being an All Black is to win every Test match and this weekend’s encounter against the Wallabies will be no different. If the All Blacks attain the consecutive win record, they will celebrate it as an achievement, but it won’t stop them from continuing to strive to beat their benchmarks and go beyond.
Jean de Villiers