Johannesburg - The presence of John Mitchell in the England coaching group should be enough to convince Rassie Erasmus and the Springboks that they should be on the look-out for something quite different from England at Twickenham on Saturday.
Mitchell was coaching the Bulls when England were in South Africa in June. He is now their defence coach and there is something specific that his new boss will want from him. It might not happen this week for it does take time for a team to settle into a new defensive system, according to SuperSport.com.
For sure, we shouldn’t make too many big claims on what England might inject into their game unless we know what time frame the England coaches are working on - will they start the adjustment now, or will they work towards getting it all going when the Six Nations rolls around in February?
It might be a bit too much of a gamble to try something new against the Springboks and the All Blacks, the two teams that England face over the next two weekends.
But you can take it as read that the in your face defensive system that nearly enabled the Blue Bulls to shock Western Province in their recent Currie Cup semi-final, and which Bulls coach Pote Human was quite happy to give Mitchell credit for afterwards, will become part of the England DNA by the time we get to the World Cup in Japan next September.
It was conversations Mitchell had with England coach Eddie Jones around the subject of the high lining Hurricanes defence that got Jones interested in procuring Mitchell’s services in the first place.
That was when England were in Durban preparing for their series against the Boks, and the England management attended a braai at Mitchell’s home in La Lucia.
Remember Mitchell and Jones know each other from way back after coaching against each other as mentors of the All Blacks and Wallabies respectively at the 2003 World Cup.
There was debate in the England media whether Jones did the right thing by basing himself on the coast for that series, and there’s no conclusive answer to that argument, but one thing that decision did do was put him in contact with Mitchell.
The former All Black coach wasn’t looking for a job, but it was around that time that, because among other things the whole process of getting clarity on whether they accepted his vision or not was taking so much time, that Mitchell decided against signing the contract extension that the Bulls had offered him. When the England offer came a month or two later it made sense to seek an early release as the Bulls would have to find a new coach at the end of 2019 anyway.
Why hold up that process? He’d already communicated that he wouldn’t be staying on to his then bosses in Pretoria.
Many of those who were at Newlands when the Bulls pushed WP so close 10 days ago contend that the Bulls were offside the whole game (I was at King’s Park that day so only watched on TV, where you can’t really tell). But there was no denying that WP didn’t enjoy having the Bulls in their faces, and it contributed to the 100 minute marathon that may have sapped the Province energy for the following week’s final.
The Sharks of course couldn’t just adopt the Bulls system but they did pick up the message regarding the WP discomfort when the opposition are in their faces. It is one of the reasons that after rollicking along during the regular season when it came to scoring tries, the Cape side scored only two in 180 minutes once the play-off phase arrived.
Could England have that effect on the Boks on Saturday? It is unlikely it will work for them so quickly, and the Boks themselves have experience of how long it takes to perfect the high defensive strategy that effectively enabled them to beat the All Blacks in Wellington. It took eight matches.
In addition, the extent to which they were committing themselves to that strategy appeared to evolve over time. Just as the Boks should expect something different, something a lot less passive from the England defence system than they experienced in June, so England should anticipate something different from the Boks.
June was just the beginning of the Erasmus/Jacques Nienaber partnership at the Boks. There were mistakes made in that first series that the Boks won’t make now that the coaches have had more time to work with them and they have had more time to settle into the system. They’ve had time to grow into the system and to start trusting it. Indeed, you'd expect the Boks to be better in every department now that they have had a few more months playing together.
But that is also where England having Mitchell on board might help England in this particular match. Two key players in the Bok defensive effort at Twickenham are likely to be Handre Pollard (flyhalf) and Jesse Kriel (outside centre), both of whom played big roles defensively in the Wellington win and again in the narrow loss to the Kiwis in Pretoria just under four weeks ago.
They obviously know the Mitchell defensive system well, but he also knows them, and also knows the whole South African psyche and approach better than most overseas coaches would. It may well be that the real big fish England have to fry is New Zealand, who visit seven days later, and of course the astute Mitchell knows the New Zealand systems well too.
But the presence of the La Lucia resident in the England dug-out on Saturday certainly adds to the intrigue of the Twickenham battle and should be a significant boost for the hosts.
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